Saturday, May 20, 2017


A LUNCHBREAK encounter brought my attention to a book my fellow teachers were holding close to their chest.

One more copy will wend its way to a friend in Australia, which, for once, was viewed as backward: its bookstores had yet to display copies of the Penguin Classic edition of Nick Joaquin’s “The Woman Who Had Two Navels and Tales of the Tropical Gothic”.

My friends’ expressions telegraphed the quiet exultation of having finally nabbed Nick, whose birth centennial was last May 4.

The new media has irretrievably changed why we read and how we read, but working daily with teachers and students, I confirm that technology leaves untouched an older, enduring obsession for books.

For knowledge workers, books are necessities. Yet, the books that occupy permanent, though cramped, space in our hearts and minds are the ones that open doors and windows to an imagined life.

I have no functional use for a black-bound book with tarnished gold-edged pages, picked up in a store of secondhand books.

Published in Amsterdam in 1905, “Het Boek der Psalmen” has all its pages covered in musical notes and Dutch lyrics, which I cannot read.

On the flyleaf of this hymnal is written the name of Minnie De Zeeuw. Handwritten under her name is March 27, 1908, Minnie’s 12th birthday.

I cannot imagine a 12-year-old plotting to get her hands on a hymnal, even in 1908. Yet, when I turn slowly the brittle pages, I can conjure up Minnie and her book of psalms.

That is perhaps why I keep between the pages of this 112-year-old book a handwritten letter my grandfather wrote to my father from his hometown in Magting, Mambajao on July 2, 1971.

Unfolding this letter, sandwiched between the indecipherable, I resurrect the man who was a dry cheek pressed against my sweating, flushed ones when his visits interrupted my playing.

In a June 17, 2016 interview by CNN Philippines, Penguin Classics publisher Elda Rotor explained the decision to include Joaquin in its roster of the world’s classics.

“The main joy is bringing an audience to a work that would otherwise lead a quiet life,” she said.

Between the pages of a book, up close and personal, has never been about absolute solitude.

Forty-six years separate now and the time my grandfather penned that letter. In that interim, four of the persons mentioned in the letter are dead, including my grandfather and father.

I will never be able to ask the questions raised from reading the domestic minutiae unraveled by the upright penmanship in blue-black ink: Did Lolo Tatay live to see the house he was constructing in two months? Were three of his teeth pulled out the following week, as planned?

I will never know but I can imagine.

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s May 21, 2017 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

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