Sunday, July 3, 2011

Book Burning in the Philippines

Regular readers of my articles know that I read a lot, as I drop a title now and then into a blog, usually with a quote that has important meaning. I do this in part to suggest to readers that there are great treasures to be found in books. College students will often be seen in coffee shops with a course book in hand, but as a literate society, the broader masses in the Philippines lag behind modern countries in exploring history and science and the whys and ways of heart and mind and acts.

Bonfire of the Vanities
Grab a book, I suggest. The riches to be found there are enormous. Ignore the taunts of the lesser minds who would hang the title of "librarian" on your reputation. They are simply following the tried and true Filipino tradition of raising themselves up by tearing someone else down. Don't concede an inch to their under-nourished psyche.

Because National Bookstore stocks only a limited number of American fictional titles, I find myself going through my collection and re-reading those that have passed from clear recollection. It takes about a year to fade from memory, wedged out by other readings and my lazy ability to recall anything but what I had for breakfast two hours ago.

I just finished "The Rule of Four" by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason, first published in 2004. What a wonderful book. The blurb on the back says "If Scott Fitzgerald, Umberto Eco and Dan Brown teamed up to write a novel, the result would be "The Rule of Four". That is so true. It has the heart-felt poignancy of love and friendships tested, and murder; the deep richness of renaissance history; and the intrigue of puzzles and riddles and the eternal battle between the Church and its critics.

The book is about a book, one filled with secrets to be decoded pointing to hidden treasures. The mysterious, coded book is "Hypnerotomachia Poliphili", a real book of unknown authorship. Four (fictional) Princeton students attack the book brilliantly, dealing with two murders pertaining to the book, love, and the shenanigans of college life. They find out who is the real author of the book and they unravel the secrets hidden within.

I can't go through the entire plot here, but wanted to focus on the essential historical conflict that is at the core of the book. The characters are real. Florence, Italy is the center of the art world in 1498. The powerful leader of the Church there is Savonarola, an evangelical preacher with great charisma. Opposing him is the author of the mysterious book, Francesco Colonna.


Savonarola believed that art and literature were undermining the Church, causing men to think wild and sinful thoughts and do wild and sinful deeds. He began the practice of annually, at Easter, burning all the sinful materials he could gather up. Paintings, sculptures, and books included. This became known as the "Bonfire of the Vanities", for Savonarola preached that those who would create such works were totally self-absorbed and not properly faithful to God.

Here is an excerpt from "The Rule of Four" that explains why Francesco Colonna hated Savonarola:

" . . . Francisco couldn't stand Savonarola. To him, Savonarola represented the worst kind of fanaticism, everything that was wrong with Christianity. He was destructive. Vengeful. He refused to let men use the gifts God gave them. Francesco was a humanist, a lover of antiquity. . . . He stood at the other end of the intellectual universe from Savonarola. To him, the greatest violence in the world was against art, against knowledge."

We live this eternal battle of faith and its rules, versus the free mind and its expressions, today in the Philippines. To the Church, education about sex is sinful because of Man's weakness and proclivity to move always to the darker side, in simple and blunt terms, fornicating their eyeballs out. To the humanists of the Philippines, a woman has a right to decide how to treat her body.

In Florence, the humanists won out, for the human spirit cannot be confined by pushing it into a cave, no matter how sin-free that cave is portrayed to be. Today Florence remains the center of the World's artistic expression.

I suggest that Filipinos resist being pushed into a cave by a Catholic Church that adheres to doctrines centuries behind the times. Specifically consider the RH Bill and the Divorce Bill. They are compassionate legal instruments that the Church would paint as sinful.

It is not sinful to be educated. It is not sinful to be kind or reasonable. The Philippine Catholic Church would have it otherwise.

It would, today, in 2011, burn certain books.


  1. I think you can order certain titles from National Bookstore's website and have it delivered to your house even if your local branch doesn't have it.
    I've only read a few books my entire life but I do read a lot of online articles. In this era of Google and Wikipedia (back in the 90's Geocities), the only thing that stands in the way of knowing things is your curiosity. I think that's what's really missing. Filipinos in general just aren't curious.
    If you are the curious type you'll always get asked "Why do you know that?", and inside your head your rebuttal would be "Why don't you know that?". People don't usually know beyond what is required in school. Same thing as you noticed when it comes to books.
    Even in music people only know what they hear in the television or the radio. When they hear something unfamiliar like jazz or classical music they see it as a gag for cartoons and start giggling. Back in the day if you wanted to know beyond MTV and radio you'd have to buy magazines, books and CD's. Now it's all free (if you're ok with torrents), but people still don't know.
    It's all about curiosity (or the lack of). No one likes to ask 'why?' or 'what else is out there?'.

  2. I'd also like to add that when they ask "Why do you know that?", they don't say it in a way that they're happy that they now know something new. They say it as if you're a freak of nature.

  3. Anon, say, thanks for the idea about ordering books through National Bookstore. That is a great suggestion, as I have several books in mind that I could order. I also appreciate your perspective that on-line reading is now more popular, and that the big barrier is lack of curiosity. Indeed, books are not essential for knowledge these days. But curiousity certainly is.

  4. There are a lot of Filipinos who are bookworms. I remember when I was a little girl about 11 yrs.old I read "Gone with the Wind" by Margaret Mitchell the original hard cover not (paper back) ha,& illustration, how I loved Scarlett O'Hara,I also fall in love with Ashly. My older brother & sisters talked about the books they read, & I remember my brother mentioned the name Conway probably the character on a certain novel, The Lost Horizon, amazing when I saw the movie years, years later & thought of my brother who is long gone..when I read a book I feel I'm in younger sister always tease me and asked "is it technicolor?" those were in the 70's I could talk & talk about books but my older sister that really get my drift has also passed away & she also love books I wonder where she stashed the old books (I hope Ondoy did not take them away.)

  5. Yes, there are a lot of book worms. A Filipino friend borrowed my whole library over the course of two years. There are not enough readers, however. Not enough resources, not enough libraries in the cities or the schools. The parent who gets his kids hooked on reading is making them rich . . . no matter how much money they accumulate.

  6. There used to have number of libraries in Manila I remember I tag along with my mother, Manila was young & vibrant the library in Escolta was nice,clean and air condition,she would drop us in the library while she went shopping at Berg department store or Aguinaldo. The books smelled good I sniff them before flipping pages, it smell like pine, fresh from the crate, I remember books were stamped with UNICEF. Then I never saw those library again. There is the Public Library close to the Planetarium in Luneta, underground is where they keep the antiquarian archive. I don't know though where the Minutiae are to be found. My Grandmother used to tell us about it....very interesting full of colorful event of some magnificent Filipinos.