Friday, May 15, 2015

Share or snare

BENEVOLENCE demands scrutiny by the giver as well as the recipient. When we moved to a smaller house, my late father finally parted with part of our library.

A government doctor for decades, he gave his medical books to the public hospital he once served. He tasked me to give our collection of magazines, some dating back to the 1950s, to the public elementary school across our home.

Losing patience with my dallying—old “Life” magazines and “Reader’s Digest” messed up my timetable—my father asked the teachers to cart away the whole tottering tower.

The following day, school kids trooped back to our home. Even before I saw the titles of the returned magazines, I knew.

The house we were vacating belonged to an uncle and aunt, who left behind their magazine collection. The aunt was a Spiegel-and-Sears housewife: she collected catalogues of dress patterns and mail-order clothes.

As keen, the uncle collected “Confidential,” “Esquire,” “Spy,” “Hush” and other magazines whose covers featured ladies not interested in sewing or ironing as their taste for clothes was limited to tiny triangles and dangerous cones poised to fire like missiles. Papang called these magazines “art,” but I doubt the teachers were into this kind of drawing lessons.

Before giving away books, I double-check what’s left between the covers and what’s written on the pages. A test I flunked from too much novel-reading is hardly a keepsake I want to leave behind for the next reader.

Despite its perils and pitfalls, sharing books is saner than the alternative. You make space for more books. Other readers discover new titles and authors. In this country, hoarding only benefits termites.

According to its 2,300-year-old history, books came to be printed on paper because of a snub on benevolence. “(H)istorically the book is the product of a monopoly,” writes Ben H. Bagdikian in “The New Media Monopoly”.

He narrates that the “greatest library in the world” during the second century B.C. was the 700,000 scrolls of Alexandria. Ptolemy V of Egypt was understandably proud of his library, which recorded everything known then of civilization on reeds harvested from the Nile River and then flattened into scrolls.

When Eumenes II, king of Pergamum (now Turkey), tried to import reeds from Nile to set up his library, “Ptolemy V was affronted by the upstart and declared a monopoly on Nile River reeds”.

Not to be foiled by this obstructionism, Eumenes II used animal skin. Hide is bulky to store as a scroll so the king’s scribes sewed together the skin to make a hinge. “The book was born,” writes Bagdikian.

Testifying to the spirit of the king of Pergamum (from whence “parchment” traces its origin), the book is what digital natives refer to as a “random access medium”. A scroll must be unrolled to the part desired by the reader. Thanks to Eumenes II, books on paper can be “opened at once to any desired section”.

Who ended up with the greatest library? Bagdikian writes that, after Cleopatra gave away the Alexandrian library to “one of her favorite lovers,” Marc Anthony, Ptolemy V’s beloved scrolls were burned by Christian conquerors eager to obliterate the pagans. There are worse fates than being snubbed by benevolence.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s May 10, 2015 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

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