One Saturday morning I caught my eight-year-old niece Zaheeda completely immersed in a bookmaking project. She took out a few sheets of bond paper from her art class envelope, folded them in half, and started making illustrations with crayons and color pencils. I sneaked closer to see what she was up to, but upon sensing my unwelcome presence –my shadow obstructed the stream of sunlight from the window—she covered her drawing and the opening line to her story. I walked away and left her with her business. I envied her in a way. When I was her age, I never endeavored on a book of my own. I drew paper dolls or my interpretation of the cartoon classics Voltes V and Flying House. Once in a while I devised a mock stethoscope by tying small whatchamacallits to a red plastic headband for a game of “doctor-doctor.”
Twenty-five years later, I would amass real books and the only thing that still reminds me that I wanted to be a doctor is a copy of MIMS Philippines, which I use as reference to understand the action of medicines that are prescribed to a sick family member.
I live in a house full of books. A handful of which I obtained from my mother’s library –survivors of a termite holocaust that now sit safely on my dark wood bookshelves— together with books that I purchased through the years, or given to me by friends and past lovers. As my collection increased, I ran out of bookshelves to hold them. I had to buy those Do-It-Yourself racks because I could customize them to shapes and sizes that can fit in available spaces. But in time books spilled to different parts of the house. I use a 338-page manual on exposition as a doorstop. The smooth cover of National Geographic works perfectly as a mouse-pad. A stack of large hardbound books serves as an extra bedside table. There’s always a book in the toilet, the inspirational soup kind, to jumpstart my day. The casualties of my cat’s urine spraying are stacked outside the house, relegated as garden reading companion. Tired of weeding my carrot bed, I would rest in the shed for a while and read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.
A few years ago I imposed a moratorium on book buying, but National Bookstore slashed down their prices during its sixty-fifth anniversary. There were books for as low as 50 pesos. I tried to avoid the bookstore for a few days, but on the third day I chanced upon an Oscar Wilde quote. Faced with the to-buy-or-not-to-buy question, it was an epiphany. A bibliophile is a moron if he doesn’t yield to the temptation of a book sale. The next day I went to the bookstore at 10am, spent a good two hours rummaging through piles of books, and brought home eight hardbound copies and five paperbacks.
I treat books with tender loving care. Covering paperbacks with plastic is a ceremony of almost religious significance that I take seriously. I dust my books every now and then. I inspect them for silverfish and termite. A few months ago I discovered an adult silverfish in one of my books. I shrieked with such horror passersby would have thought I witnessed a baby being hurled from the Empire State Building.
Books serve as markers –geographical and historical— of journeys that I’ve embarked on. Under my signature the date and place of acquisition, as well as some trivial notes are recorded on the title page. Salman Rushdie’s Step Across the Line was purchased in Kuala Lumpur on 12/21/04, after falling in a pool outside the pink mosque at Putrajaya. Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies and Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran were bought at Borders in a ‘Buy One Take One Free’ sale in Washington DC, during the summer of ’05.
I’m extremely territorial and overprotective of my books. I’m tempted to put a sticker sign in the house that reads ‘NO BORROWING OF BOOKS ALLOWED.’ It’s for a good reason. Some of my books that I lent friends and cousins in the past were never returned. Others had been victims of ‘nth degree borrowing.’ A friend would borrow a book, and he would lend it to another friend who happened to have a cousin who had scoured all stores within a thirty-mile radius for a copy of the book, and so on. Now, when my friends insist on borrowing a book I tell that they are welcome as readers-in-residence in my house. I will prepare a reading space for them. I will even cook meals for them until they finish the book. In an impending catastrophe my books, at least the ones that I classified as ‘IMPORTANT’, are to be evacuated first, along with my cats, computers, and old photographs.
Books occupy physical space. There’s little of it left in my house I can’t stretch my arms anymore without knocking something off its place. More important books fill one’s spiritual void. They provide a retreat from the banality of everyday life, a temporary cocoon where one can be transported to other universes and realities that are totally different from one’s own. Many friendships are borne out of books, engendered by common predilection for an author, genre, or literary sensibility, bringing them to a shared geography of the imagination that seems incomprehensible to those who do not share the same passion.
It would seem strange to see people camping out of a bookstore in the middle of winter just to get a copy of the newest edition of the Harry Potter series. For fans, though, it would make perfect sense. The same would be true for writers and bibliophiles who gathered at Shambaugh House in Iowa City one fall evening to pay tribute to David Foster Wallace who killed himself in his home in California. They lit candles, read fragments from Infinite Jest and the author’s other works, and cry on each other’s shoulders. No one among them has met Wallace –well, maybe one— but they echo the issues that the author explored in his writings: the existential distance that alienates people from one another.
Books can bridge time and space. In the future I will learn to let go of them, bequeathing my precious collection to a public library or a member of my family. My niece Zaheeda perhaps. One day she might inherit the joy, wonder, and fulfillment that I’ve found every time I turned a page.