Monday, July 14, 2014

Harvest of pages

THIS week, I received two priceless gifts. The first was the day my mother turned 75.

The second came before that day ended, when I stopped by my favorite secondhand bookstore and found a hardbound copy of “The Hobbit” by J. R. R. Tolkien.

Reprinted in 2012, this edition was issued to mark the 75th anniversary of the tale that started “The Lord of the Rings.”

Before the movies, before the merchandise, there was the book. Actually not a trilogy, as “The Fellowship of the Ring,” “The Two Towers,” and “The Return of the King” are often called.

Before this singularly long novel—broken down into six books in three volumes—came “The Hobbit”.

In the 1930s, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was a professor at Oxford, wearied by the endless correction of papers when he found himself scribbling on a blank leaf: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

But as Tolkien’s sons Christopher and Michael remembered, their father first told them “a long story about a small being with furry feet” during “winter ‘reads’ after tea in the evening.”

Christopher, then aged four or five, urged his father to be consistent during his retelling. He pointed out to his father that Bilbo’s door was blue, not the green of later versions; and that Thorin’s hood had a golden tassel, not silver.

Encouraged by such a rapt, critical audience, Tolkien wrote down the tale and sent it to someone who read, who believed others would read it, too.

When I held the 75th anniversary edition of “The Hobbit,” I was struck not just by my luck to hold such a handsome volume, whose paper jacket and inside illustrations bore Tolkien’s original drawings.

Before generations of readers of all ages discovered “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings,” Tolkien was a parent who tried to balance his responsibilities as a family man with his passion for stories.

Told by a friend that the publication of “The Hobbit” may fuel a public clamor for more stories about hobbits (the first edition was sold out within a few months of its release in 1937), Tolkien replied that this comment raised a “faint hope” that “duty and desire may… (perhaps) in future go more closely together.”

Though my parents worked for a living, my sister and I never wanted for stories and books. For our bedtime sessions, my late father, then a government doctor, picked liberally from comic books, novels and newspapers. My mother bought us more books than clothes, which made me indifferent for life to fashion but never for language and stories.

My first paperback edition of “The Hobbit” bears this faded record at the end-page: from September till October in 2002, I started and finished the novel while waiting for my father to wake up from a stroke. For a weekend of hospital tests, I’m packing the 75th anniversary edition of “The Hobbit”.

If not for a habit of jotting notes like diary entries in the books I read and reread, I remember primarily the stories. As his children learned during Tolkien’s fireside sessions, a master storyteller can make you forget everything but The Tale.

I logged the first 26 pages of “The Hobbit” in Pages4Progress, an online campaign that encourages readers to raise $1 for every page they read.

World Education Inc., a non-profit organization based in the United States, works with local groups to improve people’s access to quality education in 22 countries. Through literacy, people can deal with poverty, displacement, violence and HIV.

The Pages4Progress campaign encourages people to read 20,015 pages by September 8, International Literacy Day. This is also the 2015 deadline for the United Nations to attain Millennium Development Goal No. 2 of reaching universal primary education.

Every page logged in Pages4Progress is matched by a $1 donation for World Education Inc. After the Pages4Progress emailed that the first 26 pages I read in “The Hobbit” earned $26 for its online literacy campaign, I see the circle connecting the Oxford don setting down a winter’s tale for his children to generations of readers.

As every reader knows, in our imagined worlds, we are neveraging children enraptured with every turn of the page. So read and log today if you want to unlock worlds for someone who has yet to open a book.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s July 13, 2014 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

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