Sunday, November 15, 2009

In defense of mania

I WAS shelf-shocked.

One afternoon after class, I swapped lunch for a visit to one of my haunts for used books.

My mind was on finding body parts investigated by Kathy Reichs’ forensic anthropologist, Temperance “Bones” Brennan, when I spotted the greenblack spine resting on top of a pile of mint covers.

Breathe in, out. That’s what Tempe did when she came upon the freezer holding a serial killer’s collection of meticulously labeled plastic bags, mementoes of various kills.

Except that the book, age-mottled and seemingly abashed to be in such bright company, made me empathize more with the human predator, scanning lovingly such ghastly souvenirs and relishing the memories.

Was it possible that the gods of bibliophilia were smiling on me? Had I exchanged cold tuna and rice for a rare and valuable find?

Alas! The book did not turn out to be the Gutenberg Bible or even Shakespeare’s First Folio.

According to its title page, the “Het Boek der Psalmen” was published in Amsterdam in 1905.

By five years, it’s on the wrong side of the 19th century, which demarcates the period interesting to antiquarian book collectors.

A few years ago, I interviewed John, who now lives in Cebu but stores his treasured collectibles in another country he would not even disclose.

Unlike the rest of us who read books to breathe and only incidentally beg, borrow or steal something to read, John, due to his book trade and his proclivities, lives to dive to the bottom of bargain bins on the chance of bumping into, say, a first edition or, better yet, a handwritten artifact made before 1455, when Europeans discovered printing and first used the word “edition.”

While John confirmed that it does seem that the country is not as crazy about reading as texting or running for public office, he said we were at least conducive for book hunting and collecting.

Book sales and secondhand booksellers in the country ensure that books are still energetically sold, exchanged, even occasionally hurled at incorrigible readers in one of their deaf-to-the-world trances.

John the Collector impressed me, but I remained dubious. Aside from inescapable chores and bills, termites and humidity cool the passion for collecting books in this clime.

Surrounded by public schools without libraries and children who have never lost themselves in a book, it is also a sin to cling to bibliomania, the mild (only because it is not criminal) disorder dictating the compulsive accumulation and hoarding of books.

Then there is the Filipino value of “pakikisama,” or coexistence, which warns you to leave space in the marital bed for the person you marry, who will not take kindly to being displaced by any stiff-backed rival with perfect binding.

But a 104-year-old book of psalms converted me.

The first collectors in England moved to rescue books when the minions of kings plundered and stripped the monastic libraries.

Book collecting may seem downright exotic in this country, where public purses favor libraries less than flyovers and waiting sheds.

The volume I weighed on my hand was not owned by Voltaire, whose ownership made priceless his copy of an 18th-century book written by an author no one remembers.

Though neither bowed nor shelf-cocked, from resting crooked in a cabinet, the psalm book has its collectible value further reduced by the provenance written on its brittle flyleaf: “Minnie De Zeeuw, March 27, 1908, 12th birthday.”

This volume’s endpapers are stuck and torn; many pages, dogeared. Like a luckless fading beauty, the book has not escaped foxing, the brown spots that will someday tan as a prelude to crumbling.

Worst of all, the book is in Dutch and nearly covered in musical notes, two languages locking me out.

So why did I bring her home with me? Perhaps it was the price: P50. Curiosity about its first owner, Minnie-who-would-be-113-years-old-had-she-lived-till-now.

And a feeling that the obscure can illuminate; the deranged, enthrall. 09173226131

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Nov. 15, 2009 issue

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