Book Collecting: A Life Long Passion

by Jonathan Best

For a chosen few, book collecting is a life long avocation. Whether they collect books for their artistry, as beautiful antiques or as invaluable reference material, for each collector their library is a highly personal accomplishment. Books reflect a person’s character and deepest interests more closely than any other possessions. Whether one collects in conjunction with one’s career, area of study, hobby or sport, the book collection itself oftentimes becomes the primary interest. Information in one book leads to others, on and on, one book to the next. Each book imparts new knowledge and this in turn stimulates one’s curiosity. Over a lifetime, few passions will enrich a person as much as book collecting.

Grouped together in libraries books become a “body of knowledge” and take on added value in association with their peers. A single book of poetry is fine; a complete set of a favorite writer’s work is even better. A couple of dozen books on Philippine art makes a good starting collection; several hundred books, pamphlets and catalogs become a comprehensive collection. The desire to create comprehensive and unique collections is the passion that drives book collectors and dedicated librarians around the world.

Collecting takes many forms. Some collectors collect simply for the beauty of a book’s design and printing. They are connoisseurs of the “book arts”. They look for fine art illustrations, unique typeface, pages crafted from handmade paper or parchment, and gold stamped lettering on fine hand tooled leather bindings. The book arts go back at least a thousand years in Western Europe and even longer in Asia.  As early as the ninth century, during the Tang Dynasty, the Chinese printed copies the Diamond Sutras from hand carved wood blocks.

The earliest book with extensive Filipiniana illustrations is the 1595 Boxer Codex, a bound manuscript, with a series of seventy-five color paintings, fifteen depicting pre-Spanish Filipinos in elegant regional costumes adorned with exquisite gold jewelry. Also from the late sixteenth century, the Doctrina Christiana is the first example of a book printed in the Philippines and the first in a native language. The deluxe four volume folio edition of Father Manuel Blanco’s Flora de Filipinas, published posthumously from1877-1883, is the most magnificent Philippine printed book. With over two hundred color lithographs of Philippine botanicals it is a monumental work of artistry and decorative bookbinding. Today there is a revival of the book arts in the country, with many Filipino artists including national artist Ben Cabrera experimenting with handmade paper and custom illustrations.

Most Filipino book collectors collect historical Filipiniana subject matter, or famous Filipino authors. A first edition of the Noli Me Tangere in good condition, signed or inscribed by its author Jose Rizal is a prize any collector would love to have. However, at well over half a million pesos it would be out of reach for most. Despite the destructive effects of the tropical climate, earthquakes and wars, many works by other Filipino writers, politicians and illustrious men and women are available at much more modest prices. Manuscripts, letters, pamphlets and photographs are also valuable additions to book collections. Here at the Ortigas Foundation Library we collect photographs and maps as well as books, periodicals and personal archives relating to Philippine history.

Internationally, collectors specialize in just about every subject imaginable. Early medicine and science, travel and exploration, military history, erotica, ethnography, cookbooks and local histories are a few of the most popular subjects. Subject collecting here usually focuses on a particular period of Philippine history. Only the richest collectors or institutions can afford to collect early European travel accounts or maps of the Philippines going back to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. A fifty-two-page anthology published in Venice in 1536, including the first accounts of Magellan’s voyage by Maximilianus Transylvanus and Antonio Pigafetta, was recently offered by a New York dealer for US$375,000. Seventeenth and eighteenth century illustrated books, atlases and Friar accounts of the islands can also fetch very high prices.

The Spanish Era in the Philippines lasted until 1898 and there are thousands of books, pamphlets and newspapers here and in Spain documenting this period. The revolution against Spain and the voluminous writings of the early “propagandists” and nationalists like Jose Rizal, Apolinario Mabini and the editors of La Solidaridad newspaper are very collectable. The arrival of the Americans and subsequent Philippine American War was well documented, although mostly from an American view of point. World War II and the war in the Pacific are also eagerly collected by military buffs and historians.

One of the windfalls of the forty-three year American occupation of the Philippines was books. The Americans were obsessed with documenting their “new possessions”. Dozens of books were written about the Philippines and thousands of pages of government reports were published along with invaluable sets of photographs. From the late nineteenth century onwards, photographs became an increasingly important part of documenting history, culture and personal lives. If there is one priceless legacy both the Spanish and the Americans left the Philippines it is their love of books and libraries.

Budding book collectors can start out buying in-print books in their field of interest and work back in time to out-of-print and rare books as their budgets permit. Used bookstores offer many wonderful finds and the Internet and E-bay open up an entire world of possibilities for collectors. Avoid the more trivial coffee table books and overnight commercial publications. Try to ferret out works by serious writers and recognized scholars in their field, and get to know the high quality publishers and book dealers as well. If you travel abroad head for the book stores and buy books. Books may be heavy to carry home but if you buy wisely they will give you lasting pleasure and a lifetime of continuing education.