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Building My Library (The Book Collector)

For my Neighbor
who reads her Benjamin at night

"Pilosopiya -- iyan ang kailangan mong pag-aralan. Kahit na wala ka nang pera maliban sa pambili ng lampara at langis. Kahit wala ka nang panahon maliban sa pagitan ng hating-gabi at pagtilaok ng manok."

Friedrich Holderlin
in a letter dated 1796, translated by Remmon Barbaza

"... to quote the answer which Anatole France gave to a philistine who admired

his library and then finished with the standard question, 'And you have read
all these books, Monsieur France?' 'Not one-tenth of them.
I don't suppose you use your Sevres china every day?'"

Walter Benjamin
"Unpacking My Library," Illuminations

My father could not believe his eyes when he opened my credit card bill for last month's reveries. He called me in his usual seemingly-angry-but-just-excited-voice and pointed to the bottom line which I had to pay back to him in a few days. As my mouth went agape, he said, "I told you."

"I know," I said. "It's just books, Dad."

Other people have also been telling me to tone down on my book shopping sprees, if not to totally give up the whole idea (and even surrender my cards). Jobless and with my birthday and Christmas still far away, there is no fixed income and bonus allowances to bank on. (Not that the income from teaching was significant; it was fixed, true, but it was fixed rather poorly.) What little money is left from the comfortable daily allowance usually split between frequent visits to Outback and more frequent dates, that money is saved and spent on books. No, it is the other way around. (I have to be honest here.) Whatever is left from the bookstore is spent on the daily sustenance of wining and dining.

It is after all a matter of priority.


"Do you even read them?" my father asked.
"That's not important," I softly said. "You see Dad, I am building a library. And I'm sure it will look great in the den."


Piles and piles of volumes are waiting to be laid for temporary rest on what we call shelves. Making shelves is easy; one only needs to go to the hardware and get those prefabricated pieces (the cheaper way) or build bookcases from scratch (the better way). But collecting books is a long-drawn process -- or a never-ending one at that. For one always has to be watchful when a book suddenly shows up; it may either be in a book fair or in a book sale, in another country or in the net.

"The acquisition of books is by no means a matter of money or expert knowledge alone," says Walter Benjamin ("Unpacking My Library," Illuminations, 63). It is, I venture, a matter of chance. One year sees you excited about the depths of literature while the next year leads you wandering into the wonders of science; last month's flavor might be Hellenistic philosophy while this month may be the time for Freud, Lacan and Zizek.

"I am all over the place," one often hears. And with that diffusion comes the different byways one may take in the labyrinths of a library -- like the Great Library in Eco's "The Name of the Rose"). If you get lost, then find your self. And there are as many roads as there are books where you can find your way for a glorious return or permanent evasion.

Ricoeur said that it was through the detour of the written or oral word that one is able to build the narrative of one's life. To make a detour is to first stop or take pause. From what? To take pause from the normal run and race of the everyday, the workaday world. It was as if, like Malebranche's objection to Descartes' ontological proof for God and dangerous dualism, that we were clocks set and left on automatic.
"Time waits for no one" and "the world goes round and round." The trick then is to find respite from the race against time and pause: like the pause in between the second hand's quick turn or the stop between the flashing of those darn colons. Only then do you realize that for the most part, the minute or the second hands of the clock really rarely move as what is predominant and primordial in the clock is the silence and stopping in between their ticking and moving. Silence and pause reign over movement. It is only then, in that silence and respite from the workday world that one can finally make the detour, that is, finally begin to find yourself in reading.


One book may be an aporia while the next may be a river which leads to the wide-open seas. One author may be absurdly funny while the other may make so much sense that one can possibly cry. There are books and there are authors -- but the only way to know them and the paths they point to is to take the paths yourself, to find out for yourself, that is, to see for yourself.

This life, like this library, is not yet finished; it is a work in process or still in transit (or better, in transition). It has always been said -- albeit redundantly -- that you are the books you have read; yet that remark misses the mark if one forgets the painful process of surveying, browsing, purchasing, collecting, reading (and re-reading), forgetting and leaving unread the books that make up one's never-finished library.

As in writing, one bleeds in reading. Hence "the wounded cogito" (Ricoeur).


Broke and bleeding, I continue this story as I continue to build this library. And I say with Benjamin:
O bliss of the collector, bliss of the man of leisure! Of no one has less been expected... (67).
Yet again: Hegel put it, only when it is dark does the owl of Minerva begin its flight.
Only in extinction is the collector comprehended (Ibid.).

I wept when the Great Library was burned down toward the end of "The Name of the Rose." The burning of books, like cremation, is to be turned to dust and to never be comprehended.


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