Oct 28, 2023

All the president's books

All the president's books

By Saul Hofileña Jr.

BOOKS are like spoons; once invented, they cannot be bettered, said the Italian polymath, Umberto Eco. Some may think that Eco's words are no longer true because of the internet. However, an everlasting medium for storing information has not been invented, which is why nothing has yet exceeded the capacity of the book to store information for centuries. Try to open a floppy disk from three decades ago, and you will surely fail to secure the information stored there. Now, try to open a book printed 300 years ago; in an instant, you are given access to the information it contains, provided you understand the language.

Books are depositories not only of words but of human knowledge. Words unrecorded dissolve: the internet may turn out to be fickle, the Cloud, an unreliable custodian of human memory.

A few months ago, I went to the National Library on T.M. Kalaw Street in the Luneta, holy ground where Filipino patriots and martyrs were executed by colonial authorities. I found out that the books from the presidential library in Malacañan were transferred to the National Library at the instance of the first lady, Marie Louise Araneta-Marcos.

The first lady's affinity to books comes from the fact that she is a lawyer, a graduate of the Ateneo, and has taught for almost three decades a multitude of law subjects in non-elite law schools in the country, i.e., the Far Eastern University, Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila, St. Louis University (Baguio City) and Mariano Marcos State University (Batac, Ilocos Norte). She now teaches International Law at the Western Visayas State University (Iloilo City), and believe it or not, she flies there to conduct her classes. Her love of reading and teaching experience have probably given her X-ray vision, that uncanny ability to view situations through and through and inside out. She is a member of the phenom known as the Ateneo Law Class of 1985, whose members, like the dolphin and the anchor that stand as the emblem of ancient Aldine books, are swift, sure, and solid in their selected careers.

The first lady persuaded the President to part with his father's personal library, which was stored in Malacañan and is now in the presidential collection of the National Library. Perhaps she aims to start a tradition of setting up Presidential Libraries, like they do in the USA and other countries. Judging from the books our presidents have accumulated and read, the public can, literally speaking, understand the minds of the men and women who have governed us. "Books are the mirrors of the soul," a famous British author once said.

Before I proceed with my narrative, allow me to state that I will simply relate what I saw, without embellishments, but with the caveat that books and papers of other former presidents may have already been transferred from Malacañan to their homes. Who among our former presidents loved books the most? According to Gio Fuellos, the librarian, who with several others was busy sorting out and arranging the books, more or less 80 percent of the almost 40,000 books belonged to former president Ferdinand Marcos Sr., as shown, among others, by his initials on white stickers plastered on the spines of the books.

The Preident's father was a voracious reader. Not only did he read law books, but his library also had an immense variety of titles from different historical periods. There are philosophical works, classic as well as modern fiction, the "Arabian Nights," "The Death of Arthur" by Mallory, books about American presidents, war books, and a chess book with a dedication by Bobby Fisher himself. There are books about geography, politics, the French Revolution, Shakespeare and, curiously one about ballet. Years ago, I read that in his sickbed in Malacañan, President Marcos Sr. was reading a book on goat-raising. Indeed, he was an insatiable reader with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge.

The Malacañan librarian left no storage crate unturned. A box marked "Laundry" (indicating the place where it was found) was packed with 17th-century books in folio sizes, which in the antiquarian book trade means more than 13 inches in height, fully bound in calf or cattle hide. I suspect that they once belonged to the previous Spanish occupants of the Palace. Almost all are in Latin, and there is one particularly outstanding holographic book entirely in Latin and handwritten in near medieval script, approximately 5 inches thick, bound in cowhide and closed with a handmade clasp, a rare book collector's dream.

Those priceless and centuries-old books were saved because of the Maestra in Malacañan who understands the value of the written word. Don't think I am lapping it up. I am too old and grey for that. Go to the National Library and see for yourselves. The Presidential collection is still being sorted out. Take the elevator and go to the second floor, turn right, then turn left to climb the stairs to the mezzanine. Look for Gio.

(Manila Standard, Oct. 28, 2023)