Whenever I’m asked, “What are you reading now?”, I’m sometimes hard pressed to answer. I do read one book at time, but there’s always a stack or two of volumes beside my bed, some of which I’ve read, the others newly acquired and next in line for reading.
My tastes are eclectic. There are marketing and business books, holdovers from my MBA days – Marketing Gurus, all the Franklin Covey books. Lately I’m into memoirs – Matthew Polly’s hilarious American Shaolin, A. J. Jacob’s tongue-in-cheek The Year of Living Biblically, Laura Shaine Cunningham’s poignant and brave A Place in the Country.
Near the top, where I can easily reach them, are the latest thoroughbred catalogues from Australia’s Magic Millions and Keeneland in Kentucky. Keeneland’s November 2008 sale catalogues are the more interesting. It is a set of eight thick books, the information on weanlings and other bloodstock printed on thin paper. I open to the Index to Sires and roll their names in my mouth like candy – Cryptoclearance, Langfuhr, Star de Naskra.
Somewhere in those stacks are the latest edition of Strunk and White, my style manual ever since it was introduced to me in my freshman English class at the University of the Philippines; a Dummies guide to Adobe InDesign for print publication layouting; and three volumes of the Plaridel journal, the academic publication of the UP College of Mass Communication.
And at the bottom of the shorter pile is Julie Morgenstern’s Organizing from the Inside-Out – probably not the best place for it to be, if I want it to be of any help.
Any house I live in will be filled with books. It’s almost a psychological given; a house is not a home for me unless there are many books in it, spilling from shelves, stacked against the wall, piled on the coffee table.
My love for books stems from childhood. My mother raised me on science fiction and fantasy. This is a woman who kept her Lord of the Rings trilogy on the shelf below the TV set in her room, while all the other books were kept in the living room. This was back in the early ’80s, before fantasy became fashionable and when all of Tolkien’s books were out of print. Her copies, which she bought as a teenager at Lopue’s and China Rose in Bacolod City, were printed in the ’60s, before “acid-free” was heard of, and the pages were yellowed and crumbled at a touch. The spines were battered and mended many times with tape, which had also discolored to a color like weak tea.
In the tall wicker bookshelves in the sala she kept cookbooks. One of them was a ’50s hardbound Betty Crocker cookbook from her nanny who migrated to the United States. I have it now, and treat it as an heirloom. Others were cookbooks from the ’70s; those were filled with recipes for fondue, which seemed to me to be highly impractical since you needed a fondue burner.
That didn’t faze my mother. She improvised with a miniature saucepan on the stove. We gathered in the kitchen, dipping cubes of Kraft cheddar cheese in beaten egg, then breadcrumbs, then plunging them in hot oil till toasty brown.
Also on the shelves were my stepfather’s encyclopedias and his mother’s collection of children’s “two-in-one” hardbound classics. For instance, one side was Grimm’s Fairy Tales; flip the book and you got Hans Christian Andersen’s stories. My mother also had a good collection of adult classics – Aldous Huxley, Jonathan Swift, Charles Dickens, the Brontes. I wore out Bullfinch’s Mythology, though I later lost that particular copy.
My mother also possessed nearly all the Edgar Rice Burroughs books – my favorites being the Tarzan series (no, there wasn’t a “Cheeta” in the books) and the Mars series. The latter starred skimpily-clad Martian princess Dejah Thoris, who was constantly being saved by her husband, the manly Earthling John Carter, from predatory villains and robots controlled by evil scientists.
Fanart depiction of Barsoom (Mars); in the center, Dejah Thoris and John Carter face a myriad perils
Conan Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes” stories were also well-represented. H. Rider Haggard and his endless yarns of hunter Allan Quatermain’s adventures in lost cities in Africa? Check. Jules Verne and H. G. Wells classics? Yes, there too, as well as L. Frank Baum’s “Oz” books, many of them with the original John R. Neill art nouveau illustrations.
Neill’s drawings of Ozma’s hair – confined at the forehead by a thin diadem, tresses curling in whiplash tendrils – and her gauzy draperies, floating cloudlike around her slim body – captured my young imagination, representing an aesthetic that was otherworldly and unreachable. To this day, it is one of my favorite genres of art.
A Neill watercolor of Dorothy, Glinda, and Ozma of Oz.
Knowing of my insatiable – and indiscriminate – appetite for books, my mother kept those she felt inappropriate for my age in her closet, which we children never opened. When I was in college, she brought the books down, the ban lifted. One of them was Stephen King’s Dark Forces, a collection of horror and SF works by various writers. My mother probably didn’t object to the storylines but rather to King’s salty language.
In any case, it was just more grist for my mill, along with her more spinechilling H. P. Lovecraft books. The cover of one was horrifying - a worm snaked through the empty eye-socket of a half-decayed skull which bore clumps of matted hair and rodent-like teeth. I averted my eyes from that awful artwork whenever I opened that book to read about the Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth, Nyarlathotep.
At the mere thought of that macabre painting, an involuntary shudder shakes my frame as chills riff up and down my spine. Uncannily, this is my exact same reaction when my eyes or fingers travel over the few old college mathematics and physics textbooks unexpurgated from my shelves. Cthulhu ftaghn!
My father was yet another heavy reader, but his tastes ran more to W. Somerset Maugham, John O’ Hara, Norman Mailer, Sholom Aleichem, Truman Capote, biographies. Pops lived in California for five years in the ’80s, and while there wrote me excitedly when he began Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Dee Brown’s novel on native American history. He wasn’t into science fiction; the most that he got into that genre was Ray Bradbury – I Sing the Body Electric, Something Wicked This Way Comes.
I usually finish what I start. The exception is one book that I bought at a secondhand bookstall in Morayta in the late ’80s, set aside because its dense language put me to sleep although its ideas were interesting; a paradox in its rules of engagement. It was Marshall McLuhan’s 1964 work Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. This groundbreaking book had a profound impact on mass communication and media studies. As a mass comm major, I felt duty bound to read it. It’s one of the books by my bed. Sometimes I feel I keep it around not so much because I plan to finish reading it, but as a talisman to keep me focused on the particular discipline that is my life’s work.
Let me see – it’s in the taller stack, under the used copy of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast that I found a couple of years ago at Booksale for P45. It’s the second in the “Titus Groan” trilogy. I got the first book in the late ’80s, also at Morayta, deep in the University Belt in the heart of Manila. I’m still looking to complete the set. Perhaps twenty years from now, in another serendipitous moment, I’ll stumble upon a copy of Titus Alone and I will add it, yet another block in the tower of books by my bed.
People come into my house, find piles of books stacked chest-high against the walls and two- or three-deep in bookcases, and ask, “Have you read all those?” The answer is, yes, except for that darn McLuhan.
And often, “Why do you like reading so much?” and at that I am rendered inarticulate. It is difficult to explain to people who do not read, who do not relish the sensation of eyes tracking words across a page to be immersed in a story, momentarily losing touch of reality.
My own habit of reading is a result of childhood influence and a desire to escape. I lose myself in forests of words and in thickets of concepts, drown in rivers of language, wander through time and space. The volumes by my bed embody different worlds where I may go freely, through the simple expedient of cracking open a book and reading.