Penman for Monday, January 1, 2018
DESPITE THE fact that I write biographies and institutional histories, I’m not a historian and have never claimed to be one. But some days I wish I were. Back in 1981, when I was re-entering UP after dropping out for ten years as a freshman, I chose between History and English as my professed major, and settled on English only because it offered the faster path to follow, to make up for lost time. But if truth be told, in more leisurely circumstances, I would have preferred to study History, and thereby learn Spanish and even some Latin.
That’s because I’m fascinated by the past—by what happened, and by “what if”; I suppose that becoming a writer of fiction satisfies some of that curiosity (one always has to imagine and construct a past that never really happened but could have, for one’s characters). I’ve indulged that curiosity by collecting vintage fountain pens, surmising the words of love, pain, loss, and hope they would have inked for their long-vanished owners.
But more recently I’ve been edging into a new area of interest—old books and manuscripts. I’ve had the odd book from the 1800s and some beautifully handwritten documents from Spanish times, but my passion took a more serious turn with the acquisition, on eBay and elsewhere, of some rather more precious pieces. I often bring these specimens—like my December 1922 Philippine Collegian—to my classes, so my students can appreciate the material reality of the past and understand that the world, time, and society didn’t begin with the Internet and Facebook.
About a year ago, I picked up a first English edition of a book I’ve enjoyed (in paperback) since the 1970s—Paul P. de la Gironiere’s Twenty Years in the Philippines, later expanded into Adventures of a Frenchman in the Philippines. Gironiere was an adventurer who came to the Philippines from France in the early 1800s and established a large estate in Jalajala, on the shore of Laguna de Bay. He wrote about his exploits, and the original French came out in an English edition in 1853. I found a copy of that book on eBay, from the UK.
Now, 1853 is pretty old, but that would soon be surpassed by another irresistible find: a book of letters written by the Jesuit missionaries in the Philippines, published in France in 1706. The Jesuits arrived here in 1581, so the book—part of a century-long series called the Lettres Edifiantes, covering their missions around the world—is full of stories. I may not be an Atenean and my French is very poor, but I can discern marvelous adventures and great historical importance in this volume, which I found in California.
Before this, I actually had something older: a page of a German book from 1632, which I picked up at the Frankfurt Book Fair last year. But nothing could top the elation of a discovery I made just this Christmas Eve. I was idly browsing olx.ph; not finding any interesting pens, I searched for “antiques,” and stumbled on what was clearly a very old book in English from 1551, printed in Gothic blackletter. I made what I thought was a fair offer, and the seller texted back quickly to accept it; he’d been trying to sell it for a year with no takers, so my offer seemed timely, given the season. He said he was in Cubao; I said that in that case, I’d just drive over to pick it up. I saw the ad around 6:00 pm and by 7:00 the book was in my hands.
It’s nothing outstanding on its own—an abridgment by the churchman Thomas Langley of an earlier book, De inventoribus rerum, by Polidore Vergil, an Italian scholar, a kind of history of institutions like the Catholic Church (Vergil’s book got him in trouble with the church, which put it on its index of banned books). But I’m amazed by the fact that it’s survived quite handsomely for its 466 years—the pages are crisp, the leather binding firm—and charmed by the marginal notes of one of its owners, a Hugh Davies from 1650, written in extremely fine point with a quill, using sepia ink. When this book came out, Shakespeare (1564-1616) hadn’t even been born yet; the sacking of Manila was still 20 years away.
And how ever did it travel from London to Cubao across five centuries? My seller told me that his mother was a caregiver in Paris, whose clients gifted her with all manner of odds and ends—old books, Russian banknotes, silver spoons—and so the Pinoy diaspora once again works amazing wonders, bringing the flotsam and jetsam of history to our distant shores.
As I’ve often noted, the most wonderful thing about the past is that it’s over, especially when you think about all the terrible wars, the hardships, and the filth people had to endure just to get where we are today. But in a more romantic mood I can imagine myself strolling down the Escolta in the mid-30s in a white linen suit and straw hat, stepping into the Crystal Arcade or Heacock’s to scoop up the newest Parker Duofolds and Vacumatics. If you visit my office in UP, the magazine you’ll find on my visitor’s table won’t be from last month, but from February 1934. This will soon be joined by another magazine—indeed, the very first publication to use “magazine” in its title—the London-based Gentleman’s Magazine, issue of November 1773, and by a copy of the Illustrated London News, showing Taal Volcano, from February 4, 1860.
The past (or should I say eBay?) is truly inexhaustible; I only wish I could say the same for my finances. Happy New Year!