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The Libraries Of My Life

Growing up with books that were never my own




The Philippines was still recovering from the devastation of World War II when my aunts started to teach me how to read, using their handwritten English prayer booklets as books were not easy to come by. I was four years old, and the only other reading materials were
Tagalog komiks, which I loved for their beautiful illustrations and imaginative stories. I read everything I could lay my hands on. Our town, Las Piñas, was a small, rural municipality where residents tilled rice fields, tended salt beds, fished in Manila Bay, or worked in jeepney assembly shops. The barrio schools only offered Grade 1 to Grade 4. Students had to transfer to the Central Elementary School for Grades 5 to 6. All the classes and textbooks were in English.

Like most public schools of the era, Central Elementary School had no library. But it had a treasure I discovered when I entered Grade 3—a
brand new encyclopedia set, carefully kept in a glass case under lock and key in the principal’s office. Another cabinet held a sizeable stash of American magazines sent regularly by the United States Information Service (USIS): LIFE, Saturday Evening Post, and other popular American publications of the era. Suddenly, the principal’s office became Aladdin’s cave waiting to be explored.

Because of my good grades, I was allowed access to the encyclopedia after I was shown how to use it. I looked up the meaning of new words in the huge dictionary normally reserved for teachers. That’s how I used recess and lunch breaks, earning me a reputation as being strange, which I did not mind at all as long as I could read to my heart’s content. I finished reading the encyclopedia in a year, and the school
principal asked USIS to send more reading materials.

All that time, I was learning more about America than my own country. Tagalog Komiks and my grandfather’s subscription to Bagong Buhay, a leading Tagalog daily newspaper, saved me from total ignorance about Philippine matters.

A proper school library filled my high school days at the Francisco Law School, where I found history and social sciences materials alongside
clothbound literary classic and contemporary novels. I missed those after transferring to Kawit High School, but made up by borrowing books and magazines from the USIS library in Manila.

The UP Library in Diliman was my last school library haven before working for the Manila Times and discovering the newspaper’s morgue,
an invaluable repository of past issues that narrate the country’s history.

A penchant for books and history drew me and a fellow foreign correspondent together. Marrying him meant enjoying his collection of clothbound literary classics, a wall filled with jazz, folk and country albums and tapes, the latest Oxford dictionary, and a set of encyclopedia. These all came in handy when we inherited and raised five kids, all of whom grew up loving books and music.

My work as TV producer for foreign networks allowed me to build a collection of 5,000 hours of video coverage of the most important events from the 1970s to the 1980s. This video library, now digitalized for posterity, is kept by the Lopez Museum and used as reference by documentary producers.

My family’s passion for libraries has been passed on to my grandson Kyle, who describes the role of books in his life in this eloquent piece.

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