Flotsam & Jetsam No. 45: I Love My Pig

THERE’S SOMETIMES a thin line between handicraft and fine art, and I think that this wooden pig I picked up yesterday from a souvenir shop in Puerto Princesa, Palawan may have crossed that line.

It stood all by itself in a roomful of pretty and exquisitely carved objects, but something about its form appealed to me, even the roughness of its finish—that long rise up its spine and then the precipitous drop down its snout, which ends up as solid as a fifth foot, and here and there the little lumps and undulations suggesting bone and muscle.

It was when I lifted it that I knew I had to have it—it’s one hefty porker, having been carved out of ipil (Intsia bijuga), a local hardwood. My hands wrap nicely over its back and belly. This is one pig that’ll be rooting?on my desk for a long time.

Penman No. 129: Autographs and Memories

Jose_Rizal's_signaturePenman for Monday, December 29, 2014

 

WE AFFIX?our signatures to documents everyday—to checks, memoranda, requests, receipts, and felicitations—with nary a thought to where those signatures will go, those hurried scribbles that say “I was here,” “I saw this,” or “I caused this,” and, therefore, “I matter.” For most of us, those signatures will go the way of the documents that occasioned them—to some vault, shredder, or rubbish heap—their practical purposes having been served, and bearing no other value otherwise. That is, unless you’re a George Washington, or a Paul McCartney, or a Princess Diana; and then you might sign a table napkin and turn that into pile of dollars.

I’ve always been fascinated by signatures and autographs (the commonly held difference being that signatures meet legal requirements, while autographs satisfy emotional needs). My earliest model, of course, was my father’s signature, written with that flourish typical of his generation, with an understandable hint of self-magnification. Impressive signatures took time and care to practice and to write, so my father’s attention to his own left me awed and respectful. Even if he was only a clerk in his office, he signed his name as presidents did.

Mine, alas, is completely undistinguished—illegible, to be more accurate, something once likened by a curious onlooker to a paper clip pulled from both ends. I know that some people seek to cultivate a mystique by designing unreadable signatures, but I never meant to, and find the practice pretentious. My father’s signature seemed larger than life, but before and beyond anything else, it proclaimed his name, which (especially in this avatar- and alias-driven present) is probably the most honest thing you can do.

I had these thoughts in mind when—among the last things we did before flying home from Washington—I took Beng to a very special exhibition at the National Archives Museum on “Making Their Mark: Stories Through Signatures” (still on until January 5). It promised to showcase the signatures of both prominent and obscure figures and their contributions (positive and otherwise) to the shaping of history, and the exhibition did not disappoint. Being something of a history buff and museum rat, I had previously come across the most well-known ones in facsimile and in other exhibits—Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Kennedy, and, of course, John Hancock—but here was an opportunity to appreciate them in context, appended to actual documents that should have, but not always, mattered.

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Albert Einstein’s ends a long letter passionately—and, in hindsight, poignantly—arguing for the peaceful use of nuclear energy. Adolf Hitler’s—accompanying a large sheet attesting to his marriage to Eva Braun—is surprisingly small. Another unexpected twist comes courtesy of the poet Ezra Pound, who can masterfully edit his friend TS Eliot and yet, it turns out, can barely spell, as when he pleads in 1914 with the American consul in London on behalf of his fiancée, and here I quote him verbatim: “As an american about to mary and english woman, I write to you….” The Hopi Indians petition for their land in 1894, signing their names as pictographs of rainclouds, fish, and birds. Their voices are as lost and as forgotten as the letters of ordinary citizens writing to the President for various causes, none more futile than an appeal by the children of convicted spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for their parents’ lives to be spared.

As we left the museum, Beng and I wondered aloud why we couldn’t come up with a similar exhibition of historic signatures—say, of our national heroes and National Artists and National Scientists—by way of introducing our younger citizens to the story of our nation, as told by individuals in letters and other interesting and important memorabilia. This is, of course, a generation that writes messages, not letters; that tweets, not corresponds. The value of a signature—think of Manny Pacquiao’s on a boxing glove, or a porn star’s on a T-shirt—is what it will fetch on eBay.

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Some people collect autographs for fun and profit, and like any hobby involving demand and supply, a thriving business has grown around the pursuit and acquisition of scarce signatures, especially from people who will never write another one. Sometimes context is everything; a woman who got JFK to sign her newspaper just before he boarded that fateful car in Dallas made $30,000 out of that grim memento. The most sought-after signatures today, according to one listing on the Web, are those of the Beatles, the Apollo 11 crew, Marilyn Monroe, and—no, not JFK, or Churchill, or Hitler, who all follow this curious entry—the Sex Pistols with Sid Vicious. For what it’s worth, George Washington remains the star of the show, his signature on the Acts of Congress earning that book’s owner close to $10 million because of the confluence of the man and the material.

I’d be happy to run into a sheaf of yellowing papers at an antique shop or an old library and to find these signed by Rizal, Bonifacio, Juan Luna, Gregorio del Pilar, Paz Marquez Benitez, Angela Manalang-Gloria, Manuel Quezon, Jose Garcia Villa, Botong Francisco, or some such person. I doubt that I’ll be ever so lucky, precisely because we don’t value old books, especially those that have been scribbled on. As a literary tourist of sorts, I’ve been fortunate to have books signed by Joseph Heller, Kazuo Ishiguro, JM Coetzee, Junot Diaz, Frank McCourt, and Edward Jones, among others, but I’d trade most of them for any one of the above.

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Because our daughter Demi still understands what documents mean, she will be inheriting—aside from a trove of leaky pens—a passel of books and letters signed by many of our finest writers, her dad’s friends and mentors. I’ve been quite shameless about soliciting these signatures and autographs, fully expecting that the time will come, sooner than later, when our scrawls will be replaced by digital thumbprints, already a reality with Apple’s TouchID.

Maybe that’s how digital books will be signed in the future—with the press of a thumb or a forefinger on a touchpad—and it will simplify my life as an author, but take me even farther away from the verifiable veracity of the written word, and the written name.

Flotsam & Jetsam No. 44: My Fincy Walks

AS A break from the usual fountain pen, I’m treating myself this Christmas to a new pair of shoes—and “new” here means literally, refreshingly new, as almost all of my shoes come from the resale shop, or ukay-ukay, and look fit enough to march?through the pig farm with.

This time I opted for something a wee bit fancy, and settled on these “Fincy Walk” (that’s what they call them) shoes by Clarks–just about the softest and toniest shoes I’ve worn in years, fit to be danced in. I am not worthy! (But I’ll wear them, anyway, to my next poker game—they’ll go nicely with the fedora, and my chips may walk away from me, but these won’t.)

Penman No. 128: Sense by Sondheim

51xVXvpXz-LPenman for Monday, December 22, 2014

 

LAST WEEK, I mentioned having twice seen the HBO documentary on the life and work of the Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim, perhaps best known for the song “Send in the Clowns” from his hit 1973 musical A Little Night Music. Directed by James Lepine, Six by Sondheim walks us through the conceptualization and the composition of six of Sondheim’s most important songs: “Something’s Coming” (West Side Story); “Opening Doors” (Merrily We Roll Along); “Send in the Clowns” (A Little Night Music); “I’m Still Here” (Follies); “Being Alive” (Company); and?“Sunday” (Sunday in the Park With George).

I’d have to admit that I didn’t know three of these songs; I knew and liked “Something’s Coming” as a big West Side Story fan, and “Send in the Clowns” and “Being Alive” from Barbra Streisand’s Broadway album, but the others were unfamiliar to me, which was just as well, as they were a pleasant discovery of other aspects of Sondheim’s craft.

That craft and the attitude that shaped it was something nurtured by Sondheim from a young age. When his parents broke up, the boy sought a sense of regularity and order, and surprisingly responded well to the routine of a military school. He found a hero in a family friend, the lyricist and librettist Oscar Hammerstein II, to whom he presented his early attempts at composition, only to receive a coldly professional—and cutting—assessment.

That didn’t faze Stephen, who went on to write the lyrics for West Side Story at age 25—and was unhappy about it, wanting to have written the music instead (Leonard Bernstein did). This was one of Sondheim’s (and any aspiring theater person’s) first and most important lessons: when you’re starting out, you learn to play the part you’re given. And Stephen did, exceedingly well: in the documentary, he talks about writing “Something’s Coming” using a succession of baseball metaphors that emphasized forward motion: “cannonballing down through the sky… catch the moon, one-handed catch!”

Sounds like poetry, but Sondheim is very clear about the difference between poetry and songwriting. While some lyrics may be poetic, songs, he says, have to be understood as they are sung; songs have to advance the dramatic situation, and help the listener grasp what’s at stake in the unfolding drama. Readers can go back and mull over the lines of a poem, but a song has to be instantly comprehensible.

Even so, Sondheim doesn’t succumb to the easy rhyme (the kind of song where you know “remember” will be followed by “September”). The words may be simple, but the ideas complex, as in “Being Alive”: “Make me confused / Mock me with praise /?Let me be used / Vary my days.” His collaborators and directors like Hal Prince would agree that Sondheim doesn’t go for the simply hummable tune: he challenges norms, uses his music to put people not at ease, but at odds with oneself, as his characters often are.

His approach seems deceptively easy: “I scour the dialogue for lines. Or I might take a title line, then use its inflections to get the rhythm of the melody.” He likes to write lying down, taking a stiff drink now and then to loosen up. His love of word games (“It’s a very short road from the pinch and the punch / to the paunch and the pouch and the pension,” goes one of his lyrics) is mirrored in his collection of vintage board games and puzzles.

Also surprisingly, some of his best songs came as “throwaways” or space fillers, songs written to fill a gap in the drama or to wrap more tension around a character. “Send in the Clowns” was one such song—but here, for all that he maintained about the difference between songwriting and poetry, the poet prevailed. Director Hal Prince had asked Stephen to write the song for the character Desiree, played by Glynis Johns, and Sondheim had initially demurred, believing that the scene was properly the male character Fredrik’s. But he relented after seeing what Hal had in mind, and wrote the song in two days. Glynis would later say that as soon as they heard the first few notes, something stirred in the air and in their bones: they knew that they were hearing the birth of a great song. (The documentary presents it in a lovely montage headlined by Audra MacDonald and featuring, among others, Barbra Streisand, Glenn Close, Patti Labelle, Cher, and Judi Dench.)

But what did “Send in the Clowns” mean? Frank Sinatra, who sang it hundreds of times, professed that he didn’t really know. When I first mentioned the song in this column a few months ago, reader Ivi Avellana-Cosio wrote in from LA to contribute this interpretation, for which I (and surely many readers and karaoke crooners) can only thank her:

“It’s basically a song of deep regret, irony, even anger but with a reference to the theater rather than the circus. Desiree (an actress) and Fredrik are former lovers who meet again after many years, and after many other men for Desiree. Fredrik is now married, but during a weekend in the country, he and Desiree spend the night together and she realizes that he has always been the one she wanted. She proposes marriage, but Fredrik refuses to be unfaithful. The tables have been turned—now Desiree is at last ‘on the ground’ and Fredrik ‘in midair,’ in love with his young wife. Desiree declares there’s no need to ‘send in the clowns’ to cover up a bad situation: looking at Fredrik, she sings, ‘Don’t bother. They’re here.’ It’s heartbreaking, because the truth is that Fredrik is still in love with Desiree. Stephen Sondheim, in an interview, revealed that the song came together for him when he wrote those two lines. He clarified that he used ‘clowns’ because that call—“Send in the clowns!’—was originally used in the circus?to divert the audience’s attention when something went horribly wrong, e.g. when the lion tamer literally lost his head. But he meant it in the context of ‘fools” and for a brief moment considered changing the lyrics. It was a good thing he didn’t, because somehow ‘Send in the Fools’ doesn’t quite cut it!”

If you want to hear the rest of Sondheim and all the music that should go with this piece, look up Six by Sondheim on YouTube, and enjoy what I did.

Penman No. 127: Some Inflight Education

IMG_0231Penman for Monday, December 16, 2014

 

ONE OF?the things I like about flying is the onboard fun that I can look forward to—the movies and the music, to be more specific. At my age, and with all the mucking about that I’ve done, I should be sick of these things and ply myself insensible with the free beer or wine somewhere between Anchorage and Nagoya, but the honest truth is, I’m not. I’m eager for entertainment, which is the only way I can forget the fact that I’m going to be up in the air for the better part of a 24-hour day. I don’t have a fear of flying; it’s boredom I can’t abide.

Being up there means that I can catch up on all the movies I never saw and didn’t even know existed. Beng and I almost always take in a movie after our weekly foot massage (such is life in the 60s), but we’re slaves to what’s out there, and not being too much of a cinephile I’m positive I’m missing out on the good stuff by sticking to the mall fare.

That changed last week when I flew home from Dulles airport outside of Washington, DC to Terminal 3 on the fringes of Pasay—a distance of 8,548 miles, according to Google. That meant 11:30 hours of self-amusement to contemplate, but I think I hit the jackpot—a trifecta in sporting terms—by watching three great movies on one long trip (I actually saw four, but I don’t think Hercules: The Thracian Wars is going to win the Palme D’Or).

I can’t get enough of documentaries, and I actually watched this one twice—the first time on the inbound flight last September, and again coming home. It was an HBO special titled Six by Sondheim, about the life and work of the lyricist-composer perhaps best known for that song everyone loves to sing but nobody really seems to understand, “Send in the Clowns.” (Reader Ivi Avellana-Cosio finally made sense of it for me.)

I just enjoyed the presentation the first time I saw it, but this second time, I was furiously scribbling away on my notebook with a fountain pen in the half-light, as Stephen Sondheim spoke about the creative process behind six of his best songs. Anytime you see me taking notes, it has to be that good, so I’m going to save the best of Sondheim for another column, which the material richly deserves. But just for starters, this was the man who wrote the lyrics and libretto for West Side Story when he was 25—a task he chafed at, wanting to do the music instead—but it proved to be a great learning experience, and Sondheim would go on to become a master teacher himself, like his mentor Oscar Hammerstein II and West Side Story collaborator Leonard Bernstein.

It was Bernstein, come to think of it, who once said that “Music is the only art incapable of malice,” which makes a good segue to my second choice, a film suffused with malice but whose central character, played by the Briton Tom Hardy, exudes an odd naivete. I’ll spare you the spoiler, but The Drop is as quiet and as deliberate a murder mystery as they come. Set in a bar in Brooklyn, The Drop has no car chases, no photogenic panoramas, and co-star Noomi Rapace puts it best when she squirms and says “I don’t want to be here.” We don’t, either, but we can’t help staying and looking, because we fear for the safety and the happiness of our unlikely hero, a quietish bartender who seems intent only on saving damsels and dogs in distress—at least until he draws a severed arm out of a bag; but I’ve already said too much.

And Tom Hardy makes a good segue to the last item on my playlist, which I watched on the Tokyo-Manila leg. He doesn’t appear in it, but is quoted—or I should say more than quoted, because we hear his voice again, speaking like a head in a paper bag, coming out of the mouth of someone who looks nothing like Tom Hardy, the British comedian and mimic Rob Brydon.

The movie was the rather tepidly titled The Trip to Italy, and the only reason I bothered to click on it was because I mistook it for a travelogue that would take me back to some postcard-worthy renditions of Tuscany and Umbria. Of course—away from the neorealism of Fellini and his crew—nearly anything in Italy is worth a postcard and indeed a book. That’s the burden of Brydon and his fellow comedian and travel companion Steve Coogan, who get sent on assignment as their real selves to trace the footsteps of Byron and Shelley in Italy while feasting on veal and artichokes and an endless parade of smart brunettes.

It’s a road movie and a buddy movie all at once, but it’s not Easy Rider or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Real men don’t tool around the countryside in a Mini Cooper, twirling pasta on their forks while quoting the Romantics (“romantic poetry” to most guys comes with a small “r” and is best represented by Kenny Rogers and Michael Bolton).

The Trip to Italy is the kind of talky romp that fans of that taciturn trio of Seagal, Stallone, and Schwarzenneger would absolutely hate. Ninety percent of the movie is conversation—make that intelligent, hilariously intelligent conversation, and 50 percent of that 90 percent is comic impersonation, with the two guys doing their irrepressible impressions of Michael Caine and Marlon Brando, making Coogan and Brydon the Dwayne Johnson and Vin Diesel of roadside repartee. But for all the silly banter, there’s a poignance that underscores this movie that seems to be going nowhere, except deeper and deeper into the male psyche.

I thought I was up there for a load of entertainment, but instead I got a dose of inflight education. I can think of far worse ways of killing time.

(Posters from imdb.com and wegotthiscovered.com)

Penman No. 126: Friendships Old and New

IMG_5878Penman for Monday, December 8, 2014

 

OUR THREE-MONTH American sojourn has come to a close, and by the time you read this we should be back in Manila, a bit wobbly in the knees but glad to be home. I’ve gained back too much weight—the price to pay for all that scrumptiously greasy diner food and the cold spells that excused me from my daily walks—and I’ve begun to miss my morning tinapa and my suppertime tinola. But I’ve hit my research targets and more, and am eager to hunker down to writing the book that should come out of all this. I know that in a couple of weeks this vacation will be another happy memory, and I’ll be stuck in Christmas traffic on EDSA, sweltering and muttering why the heck I didn’t stay out there for another month or two.

Before that happens, let me thank some very fine people we met during this visit, which apart from the work was marked by new friendships made, existing friendships strengthened, and old friendships revived. I’ve already thanked my interview subjects in a previous piece, but there were others behind the scenes who made this particular journey pleasant and memorable. They include Sonny and Ceres Busa, Nomer and Camille Obnamia, Erwin and Titchie Tiongson, and Jun and Myrna Medina.

They may just be names to those who’ve never met them, and indeed they’re not the kind of A-listers you’d find in the glossy magazines that make virtual libraries of Metro Manila’s beauty salons. Even among Filipino-Americans, just a few names keep recurring in the social registers, either titans of industry or doyennes of fashion—leading one to wonder, where’s everybody else and what are they doing? Surely the rich and famous have no monopoly on everything that’s interesting and important? So let me introduce these friends to the world at large, by way of celebrating the non-celebrity whose quiet deeds lend substance to the sparkle of those better known.

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Sonny and Ceres hosted us twice at their postcard-pretty home in Annandale, Virginia and introduced us to the satisfying simplicity of Ethiopian food. The Waray-born Sonny had been a US consul in Addis Ababa, among other places, and his hilarious but spot-on insights into the American mind enlivened our every conversation. Ceres helps oversee a caregiving company for seniors in Virginia, a job eased by her patience and cheerful disposition, of which Sonny is luckily the prime beneficiary.

Nomer had been born in Sampaloc, Quezon and joined the Navy, where he met Camille in Hawaii; they’ve settled down in Columbus, Ohio, and our friendship began in the most unlikely circumstances. A committed conservative, Nomer had responded sharply to a column I wrote here years ago on artistic license, and our email conversation turned into a more gentle exchange of ideas and gestures. An expert in government procurement, Nomer had freely offered his counsel to our agencies and opinion-makers many times on ways of curbing corruption, but much to his dismay, his letters didn’t even merit the courtesy of a reply; I sadly felt obliged to tell him why. He and Camille took us into their home in the American heartland, where again I was reminded of the complexity and yet also the civility of much of American society, the challenges of Ferguson notwithstanding.

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As I wrote in this column two weeks ago, Eric and Titchie showed us, through their documentation of the Filipino presence in the capital area, that remembering the past need not be the preoccupation of the old, but has to be a continuing project for future generations to appreciate. A freelance journalist who’s been recognized for her work, Titchie wrote a fascinating article (http://www.oovrag.com/essays/essay2013b-3.shtml) about how a pretty stretch along the Potomac River was inspired by the Luneta, thanks to First Lady Helen Taft, who wanted the new park to mimic what she had seen in Manila, where her husband had served as Governor-General.

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Jun and Myrna Medina are old friends from the early 1970s, married four days after Beng and I got hitched. When I met Jun after being released from martial-law prison, he literally emptied his wallet for me, and later helped me get a job, a favor that in turn allowed me to propose marriage to Beng. Jun had also been a newspaperman and a fellow activist before martial law, but what many of his friends didn’t know was that he had eagerly volunteered to join a group of cadres bound for the Visayas, only to be turned down because his Capampangan origins would have marked him instantly as an outsider and gotten him killed (as, tragically, would befall everyone else in that posse). Another spin of the wheel of life took Jun to America, where he and Myrna have devoted themselves to their charismatic ministry. I hadn’t seen Jun in at least 20 years—only to discover that the Medinas had been living barely ten minutes away from my sister’s place in Centreville, Virginia, my virtual second home.

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Of course, let me add our family—Elaine and Eddie Sudeikis in Virginia, Jana and Senen Ricasio in New York, and Demi and Jerry Ricario in San Diego—to our list of hosts and sponsors (led primarily by the Philippine American Educational Foundation, the Fulbright folks). Other friends new and old like Mitzi Pickard, Reme Grefalda, Susan Brooks, and Moira Madrid-Spahr also contributed their time and attention to my visit.

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I was hosted by the George Washington University, and from GWU I have to thank English Department chairman Robert McRuer, creative writing program head Lisa Page, and old Manila hand and law professor Ralph Steinhardt. Ralph helped prosecute the Marcoses in Hawaii for human rights abuses when he was a young lawyer, and I’ll always remember his story about the response of a plaintiff whom he warned against the rigors and the costs of fighting the Marcoses: “I just want to be believed.”

In the end, that’s all we can hope for, and may my forthcoming book be worthy of all these good people’s graciousness and generosity.

Penman No. 125: A Date with the Doctrina

1024x1024-1510204Penman for Monday, December 1, 2014

 

NO VISIT?to Washington, DC would be complete without looking into the Library of Congress, which stands behind the US Capitol, perhaps in a symbolic juxtaposition of knowledge and power. The library was, in fact, originally lodged with the Congress, but had to be rebuilt when British troops sacked and burned the Capitol in 1814, starting with the wholesale purchase of Thomas Jefferson’s personal collection of almost 7,000 books for about $24,000.

The LOC has come a long way since then; Jefferson’s volumes are still on display, but they have been joined by 36 million more books, not to mention more than 120 million more non-book items such as photographs, manuscripts, recordings, and sheet music. It’s easily the world’s largest library, adding some 12,000 new items to its roster every day, largely because of the copyright registration process. According to the LOC, half of its collections are in languages other than English—about 480 languages all in all, including nearly 3 million items from Asia.

A simple search of the LOC collections shows that there are more than 40,000 items here related to the Philippines (including, should you want to hear it, a recording of William Howard Taft talking about the Philippines shortly before he became President in 1909). The LOC has early editions of Jose Rizal’s Noli and Fili, which, along with other important Rizaliana, were put on special display at the Asian Reading Room in 2011 to commemorate Rizal’s 150th birth anniversary.

Last week, thanks to the combined efforts of the Filipino-American community in Washington and former LOC librarian and Fil-Am activist Reme Grefalda, I had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the crown jewel of the LOC’s Philippine holdings—the only known copy in the world of the 1593 Doctrina Christiana, the first book published in the Philippines.

The Doctrina is essentially a catechism, a collection of common prayers, including the Lord’s Prayer and the Hail Mary. Being basic prayer books, there had been other Doctrinas published earlier in other countries. The Philippine version was put together by Fray Juan de Plasencia, a Franciscan friar who helped found many Philippine towns, including Antipolo, Lucban, Meycauayan, and Tayabas. In 1585 he wrote King Philip II of Spain that he had already written several religious and scholarly books that could help spread the faith in the islands—including the Doctrina and studies of the Tagalog language—and asked for royal assistance in funding their publication.

But the good friar died in 1585, and it wouldn’t be until some years later, in 1593, when we see Governor General Gomez Perez Dasmari?as writing the King to present him with copies of the Doctrina in two versions—Tagalog and Chinese—and to explain that he had granted a license for the printing of these books (under Dominican auspices) because of their great value to the evangelization effort. And then, so the story goes, all copies of the Doctrina vanish, until the Tagalog one reappears—presumably the royal copy—in Paris in 1946, where it’s bought by an American dealer, who then resells it along with many other books in a lot to the American book collector and onetime Sears Roebuck chairman Lessing J. Rosenwald (1891-1979), who then bequeaths his collection, including the Doctrina, to the Library of Congress upon his death.

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So the LOC’s copy, as far as we know, is the only one of its kind, and it was with great anticipation that Beng and I joined a group of ten Filipino and Filipino-American scholars and advocates who were kindly admitted by the LOC’s Rare Books Division to a private viewing of the Doctrina, with LOC librarian Eric Frazier doing the honors. (While waiting for our appointment, we had taken in a few of the LOC’s other prime offerings including the Gutenberg Bible, which is on permanent display near the stupendous main lobby that welcomes visitors, and the Magna Carta, on loan from the Lincoln Cathedral.)

I should’ve read up more on the Doctrina before we went up there, but I was surprised by two things I realized only when I saw the book up close: its relatively small size, and the fragility of its paper. It’s only about 9 by 7 inches, not much bigger than a contemporary textbook. It was a further surprise to hear Eric say that “As far as I know, among the millions of books we have at the LOC, this is the only one whose every page is sheathed in Mylar.”

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I had asked Eric about the condition of the book and the paper, having seen and even handled other books from the 1600s (many of which, printed on stout, crisp linen paper, look good as new, and have survived in much better shape than the acid-lined paper of the 1800s and 1900s). The Doctrina, as it turns out, was printed xylographically—like a woodblock with the letters carved out—on mulberry paper (other sources say rice paper, although that term may have covered other papers made from mashed material). I’m not a professional historian, so I stand to be corrected on these presumptive facts by people who know vastly more about the Doctrina Christiana and about the history of books than I do (two immediately come to mind, our foremost book historians: Dr. Von Totanes and Dr. May Jurilla).

It was with the greatest of care and respect that we flipped those pages, and we saw what generations of the faithful must have seen (that is, if they saw the book at all): a syllabary, followed by prayers and other articles of faith, presented in Spanish, Tagalog, and baybayin, that pre-Hispanic script that survives in our consciousness only in the Katipunan “ka.” What’s remarkable is how fundamentally familiar the text of the prayers is: “Aba guinoo Maria matoua cana, napopono ca nang gracia. ang panginoon dios, ce, nasayyo. Bucor cang pinagpala sa babaying lahat….”

And so it went, a cry of praise and supplication across the ages, come to life again at our trembling fingertips.

I can only hope that, perhaps through an arrangement with a responsible Philippine institution, the Doctrina can be brought back to the Philippines for a special exhibition (the forthcoming Papal visit would have been the perfect occasion), or at least that more Filipinos in the US could see it, along with the other Philippine holdings at the LOC. It does take time and effort to arrange for a viewing, but in the meanwhile, the full digital copy of the book, provided by the LOC, can be found here: http://tinyurl.com/knpzkn5. For more information on the Doctrina Christiana and this particular copy, see the notes of Project Gutenberg editor Edwin Wolf at http://tinyurl.com/p6uqlvr.