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Excerpts from the Diary of a Bargain-Book Addict

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A slightly shorter version of this essay appeared as a full-page spread  sometime in April 2003 in the Arts and Culture page of The Philippine Star. Alas, it was to be my last article as a reporter for the newspaper, and it’s not even about news!

 

By Romel Regalado Bagares

The affliction came to me bit by bit, as any real disease invading the
body’s immune system would, until the last of its defenses fell to the viral
infection. The bug must have bitten me sometime between my first trip to a
bargain book shop and the first time I read the first page of the first
bargain book I had ever bought not too long ago – a forty-peso paperback
edition of Italian Marxist intellectual Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks.
It’s like partaking of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil; one bite
at temptation and your life is changed forever. One buy and you just can’t
stop yourself from buying more. And more. And more. Before you know it,
you’re hooked. I guess it’s a fine variation of what Filipina novelist Gina
Apostol calls bibliolepsy, “a mawkishness derived from habitual aloneness
and congenital desire. Manifestations: a quickening between the thighs and
in the points of breast, a broad arching V, when addressed by writers,
books, bibliographies, dictionaries, Xerox machines, a sympathy for typists
of manuscripts. Etymologically related to Humbert Humbert’s gross
tenderness, though rarely possessing its callous tragedy; ocassionally
accompanied by a liking for rock and roll. The endless logo-itch,
desperately seeking, but it can’t get no satisfaction. Biblioleptic attacks
followed by bouts of complete distate for words.”

I chuckled when I first read this passage. What, for example, does she mean
when she talks about that “quickening between the thighs and the points of
breast”? What readily came to mind were romance novels that invariably fill
the shelves of bookshops, their glossy covers embossed with the likeness of
men and women in sundry amorous forms. Indeed, Apostol – or Primi, the
principal character in her novel – seems to equate the pleasures of the text
with sex, the parody that the novel is notwithstanding.

At the very least, her etymology of the logo-itch reeks with sensuality.
Still, bargain-book addicts like me can agree with her when she talks of the
deep obsession with words, an endless itching for books, yes, one that can’t
get no satisfaction, one that, indeed, is oftentimes followed by a
dissatisfaction with the nature of things, with a sweet horror at the
realization that one has become a slave to yet another pleasurable sin, or
to a desirable flaw from which there seemingly is no
redemption.”…(D)esperately seeking, but it can’t get no satisfaction.” I
can heartily agree with her on that point, thought I’m not much of a fan of
rock and roll.

And yet, it, too, could be something ethereal, or even an insatiable longing
for a spiritual experience in the world of the logos. Here works what the
philosopher and fictionist George Steiner calls Real Presences – the
transcendental reality of the Divine communicating to mortals in their own
terms, in their own words.

Poet-pastor Eugene Peterson notes in his book Reversed Thunder, The
Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination [P120], that in the revealed
word, …”[T]here is logos: God revealed is God known. He is not so
completely known that he cannot be predicted. He is not known so thoroughly
that there is no more to be known, so that we can go on to the next subject.
Still he is known and not unknown, rational and not irrational, orderly and
not disorderly, hierarchical and not anarchic.”

I think of the scribes of old who painstakingly hand-copied scripture into
hand-bound books that were, in themselves, works of art. The New Testament
is a wonder in this respect: there are more than 5, 300 known manuscripts in
the original Greek language. In addition, there are more than 19,000 ancient
New Testament manuscripts in Latin, Syriac, Armenian and other languages.
More than 24,000 hand-written copies of the New Testament have survived. In
contrast, Homer’s Iliad only has 643 copies – the most for any other ancient
work. There are only about ten manuscripts ever found of Caesar’s War
Commentaries, seven for Plato’s Tetralogies, twenty for Livy’s History of
Rome, and only a couple of Tacitus’ minor works. And how close to the
originals do the ancient works actually get? Caesar’s War Commentaries was
written about 50 B.C., yet we don’t have manuscripts available which were
copied before the 9th century – a gap of 900 years.

Most of the Greek writings have even greater gaps, between 1,000 to 1500
years. The shortest span of any ancient work, according to scholars, is that
of Virgil, about 300 years between his writing and the oldest copy known.
Compare that with the New Testament books, which have been written over a
fifty-year period, beginning at A.D. 47.

The range for all other literature is from 300 to more than 1, 500 years.
But the John Rylands Papyrus, dating about A.D. 125, is a fragment of a few
verses of the Gospel of John, which was made only some 35 years after the
original gospel had been written by the apostle.
Says Sir Frederic Kenyon, the eminent scholar of textual criticism:
“Scholars are satisfied that they possess substantially the true text of the
principal Greek and Roman writers whose works have come down to us, of
Sophocles, of Thucydides, of Cicero, of Virgil; yet our knowledge of their
writings depend on a mere handful of manuscripts, whereas the manuscripts of
the New Testament are counted by hundreds, even thousands.”
He adds that no other ancient book has anything like such early and
plentiful testimony to its text as the New Testament, and no unbiased
scholar would deny that the text that has come down to us is substantially
sound.

But perhaps, I digress. After all, we’re talking of bargain books here.
Still I think just as well of the famed library at the ancient city of
Alexandria which, in the grandeur of its time, was the scale against which
the intellectual wealth of other nations and races was measured. One legend
– almost surely false, notes Harvard Professor Stephen Jay Gould in his book
Eight Little Piggies: Reflections on Natural History (P215) – that the
library was still intact when Muslim invaders captured the city in the
seventh century. The library, built by descendants of Alexander the Great
about 2,000 years ago, housed the largest collection of books in the ancient
world – more than 700,000 volumes – including the works of Homer and the
library of Aristotle. Historians tell us that Euclid and Archimedes studied
there, as did Eratosthenes, the first mathematician to calculate the
diameter of the earth.

The story goes that emir Amrou Ibn el-Ass, having conquered Alexandria in
640, wrote to the Caliph Omar asking what should be done about the library,
hoping against hope that his beloved Caliph would spare it. But the Caliph
was supposed to have replied to the emir with the words, “heads I win, tails
you lose.” The books and manuscripts in the library, said the Caliph, are
either against the Koran, in which case they are heretical and must be
destroyed, or they are in harmony with the Koran, in which case they are
superfluous and must be destroyed as well. In the end, he had the entire
collection burned to heat the water in the public baths of the city, with
the library supposedly keeping the fires going for six months. The emir must
have mourned the great bargain he lost when that great treasury of knowledge
went up in smoke.

**********

It’s a fine Monday morning. Time to call my friend Arvin, who edits a
medical journal. As always, we begin the way our friendship began: with a
conversation on books. He exclaims when he learns that I found a coffee
table-size anthology (P180) of the poet John Ashbery’s writings on art and
artists that span three decades of his career as critic for various
publications, notably, the Paris Review, Newsweek, International Herald
Tribune, New York and Art News.

He is even more surprised when I tell him I’ve also bought at a shop along
Pedro Gil in Manila a collection of Canadian writer Alice Munro’s short
fiction, The Moons of Jupiter and Other Stories, for only P60. “I’ve already
finished reading the book, would you like to borrow it?”
He wants to bring my new acquisitions when he goes to Hong Kong next week.
Okay, okay, I say, but what’s the quid pro quo?

He offers to compensate my temporary loss with a back issue of Granta
magazine (which looks like a Penguin paperback – in fact, it is published by
Penguin!) on why we’re all enamored with crime and Lingua Franca, a lively
journal of the highs and lows of academic life. “That’s fair enough I say,
“and please take good care of my books.”

And I could now imagine his jaw drop when he also learns that I now own a
hardcover edition of Ian Gibson’s definitive work on the life and times of
the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca (P250). That last bit sure floors
him. We’ve first laid our eyes on a copy of that book at the British Council
Library when it was still located in New Manila during our college days.
“Now that’s a really good one,” he says. “As for me, I haven’t bought any
book, just some back issues of Harper’s Magazine.” Not bad at all, I say. I
myself collect Harper’s. My most treasured copy is the one that had a short
story by US-based Filipino writer Eric Gamalinda about the fall of the
Skylab satellite in the late 70s as Filipinos of the era experienced it.
Fear of Heights, was the title, if I am not mistaken. And I think this story
isn’t really new but is one that had been with him for sometime, revised
here and there for publication in the magazine. Arvin says it’s the very
first time a Filipino writer has made it to the fiction section of the
prestigious magazine, which makes that particular issue a collector’s item.

Last week, Arvin made me turn green with envy when he told me that he had
found at a Booksale in Makati City a mint-condition copy (P60) of Sylvia
Plath’s Ariel, a posthumously published collection of her poems (it has an
introduction by the poet Robert Lowell, which makes it an all the more
superb find), and that, at a National Bookstore sale, he had bought one of
Paul Auster’s New York trilogy books – In the Country of Last Things – for a
measly P30. That completes Arvin’s trilogy collection. (The only book I have
of Auster is entitled the Art of Hunger, a collection of his essays and
interviews, the lead piece of which is a lyrical almost trance-like
exploration of the world of Franz Kafka as a writer whose many works were
written at the point of starvation. Auster  – who has also translated some
of the major French poets of the modern era – knows what it means to write
and starve at the same time. I have a copy of a Granta magazine issue on the
memoir as a literary form, where Auster and another noted writer, Doris
Lessing, recalled the tribulations they went through as beginning writers).

But this time, ha ha ha, the victory is all mine. I can hardly wait for our
next book banter, our ritual beckoning to a common bond.

*******

Ah, when will this implacable urge to buy books ever end? “Of making many
books,” said the philosopher-king Solomon in Ecclesiastes, “there is no end.
” I must not forget the next phrase to Solomon’s line:” and much study
wearies the soul.” The wisest man to have ever walked on the face of the
earth certainly presaged the demigod of deconstruction, the French literary
theorist Jacques Derrida, who once said to the effect that a book will never
achieve any closure, but can only pretend to one.

Or am I just taking my reading habits too seriously? There are times when,
having finished a book, I fling it to the floor, feeling exhausted and used
up. A certain guilt overwhelms me, indeed, a “complete distaste for words,”
all at the thought that in the end, knowledge becomes puffed up and the
wisdom of this world is mere vanity, “a chasing after the wind,” in the
words of Ecclesiastes. I open my Bible to the New Testament. “Where is the
wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age,” asks
the apostle Paul in his first epistle to the Corinthian Christians. “Has not
God made foolish the wisdom of the world?”

A certain mawkishness. The computer’s thesaurus lists the following
synonyms: sentimental drivel, mush, sentimentalism, maudlin act, gush,
affectation, exaggerated sentiment, excessive sentiment.
But no sooner had I promised myself not to indulge in yet another buying
spree than I’d find myself inside yet another Booksale outlet, poring over
the books it has to offer, wishing I have all the money in the world to
satisfy my cravings for words. It’s as if my day by day struggle with words
as a newspaper reporter wasn¹t enough!

My fascination with books began when I was about five years old. One day, I
wandered down the basement of the old house in General Santos City where I
found a dusty collection of titles that covered everything from music,
philosophy, arts and history to law and religion. I pulled a chair,
clambered up and took out a thick volume from the collection, which lined
racks stuck high up on two adjoining walls. It was a history book. Still an
unread lot, I sat enthralled as I opened the volume to pages which showed
photos of the etchings left on the walls of caves by early men and those of
dinosaurs of the earth in ages past. Alas, my early explorations in history
opened me to a bigger world, one that, by turns, thrilled and fascinated me.
I would later learn that most of these books were bought from the old
bargain shops along Recto, Lerma and Avenida by my father and my uncles
during their college days in Manila.

In the old days, these places sheltered numerous bargain bookshops, the
old-timers recall. They’re still there, existing alongside dens of fake
diploma makers, the latter distinguished for their craft the world over. But
these shops have fallen behind the march of progress, losing the battle to
the air-conditioned Booksale outlets elsewhere – most notably, the malls –
which offer unrivalled ease and convenience. Today, the old paths are worn
and dirty. Who would want to use them still? For me however, a bargain is a
bargain. I’d go anywhere if there’s a good buy there and I’ve got the money.
Nothing approximates the excitement I feel each time I chance upon a long
sought after-tome at a bargain bookshop.

Unlike the Swiss, however, I am not a meticulous keeper of records. I have a
hard time keeping track of books I’ve lent to friends. I don’t even keep an
inventory of the books I own. I only like to imagine them lining up imagined
book shelves, their spines shimmering in the dark of the room, so full of
mystery and excitement. For now, however, my books chiefly make up the chaos
that is my small rented room, kept in boxes under my bed, piled on chairs
and on the study table, or stacked on the floor like they were waiting to be
transformed into a bonfire in some Nazi pogrom.

*********

Today, I discover at a Booksale in the UP Shopping Center two fine discards
from the Floral Park Library in New York. Imagine the distance the books
have traveled! And think of the people who’ve read them before they were
shipped out of the library for the pleasure of a bargain book addict like me
– hey, I read somewhere about the big crisis public libraries in the US now
face because of a serious lack of funds.

Anyway, the first one’s a collection of the letters of Nobel Prize winner
for peace Albert Schweitzer (P140). The other one’s another letter
collection, also of another Nobel Prize winner, the American novelist
William Faulker (P120), mostly written when he was a strapping youth in his
20s.

Handsomely jacketed hardbounds, in very good condition. Old-fashioned
letter-writing has become such a tedious exercise. In this day and age of
the e-mail, the pleasure of reading handwritten text on paper is becoming a
forgotten experience. But in the old days, it was in itself, a fine craft
for the true-blooded aficionado of the handwritten word. I am not much of a
letter-writer myself, except when it comes to love letters.
If I had the money last week, I would have bought another letter collection,
that of eminent journalist Nancy Mitford, who had corresponded with many
famous and interesting personalities of her time. Her volume, worth P180,
had already been bought when I returned to the shop today. I wonder what
Arvin would say about my latest find.

********

What’s the life of books? In an essay in the New Yorker, John Updike
describes the flurry that marks the act of writing a book. It is, in his
words, like that one moment in the movie Lawrence of Arabia, when a tiny
black dot on the shimmering desert horizon slowly grows into a galloping
sheik – “a vibrant blur that gradually enlarges into a presence, preferably
dashing and irresistible.”
Then the book is finally published and our auteur picks up a copy, smells
the fresh ink on its pages, and smiles with a contentment that’s all to
himself. But soon, the first blush of excitement over its publication is
followed by a downward spiral that is the fate of ephemeral words. When the
accolades die down, the reality of unsold copies lines up the shelves of the
bookstores. What happens to the author now?
As he passes by the store windows, he glances away, and like the bad Levite
in the parable of the Good Samaritan, he takes the comfortable way, away
from the inconvenience, nay, the pain, that the sad truth brings. Updike
muses:” the books call out with little surface details – a title type once
fervently debated, a topstain tenderly selection – for a recognition now
stonily denied.” “Soon,” he adds, “a chorus of cries from a sinking ship,
the books die away; they eddy into the back shelves of bookstores, and
thence into the mountainous return piles, to reappear a year or two later in
the discount catalogues and in a paperback version. The royalty statements,
by the time they appear, are like shreds of wreckage which float to the
surface of a cruel, inscrutable sea.”

A not-so-comforting observation from a veteran prize-winning writer of over
40 volumes and more than seven million words. But such is the woe of the
writer. To bargain-book addicts, however, the writer’s woe is their best
enjoyed pleasure. For, in the end, that means yet another consignment
waiting to be discovered and bought, all the better and all the more
romantic if it’s found in some street corner shop, all for the price of a
song, all for the delight of bargain book addicts everywhere.

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Written by Romel

October 31, 2011 at 4:40 pm

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