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Happy Birthday, Pepe! The Library Geek that was Dr. Jose Rizal


Note: From Prof. Ambeth R. Ocampo’s Looking Back. Published on Page A13 of the February 1, 2006 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

What is not well known is that the Lopez Museum and Library has a collection of 99 handwritten bibliographic cards, which suggest that if Rizal hadn’t finished Medicine or become a hero, he would probably have been a librarian!

These little slips of paper show us what books he actually owned and read. At the top of the list is a book of Hans Christian Andersen’s tales. He even translated five Andersen tales from German to Tagalog for his nephews and nieces. This manuscript, now unlocated, even comes with some charming drawings, proving that Rizal could be a doting spinster uncle. He translated: “The little fir tree” (“Ang puno ng pino”); “Thumbelina” (“Gahinlalaki”); “The ugly duckling” (“Ang pangit na sisiu ng pato”); Andersen’s “The Angel” (“Ang Sugu” — not the current TV series); and “Little match girl” ((“Ang batang babaing may dalang sakafuego”).

Being a novelist, Rizal was partial to literature and he read books like “The Three Musketeers” and “Count of Montecristo,” and even Dickens’ “David Copperfield.” He had cards for “The Barber of Seville” and “Marriage of Figaro,” and it would not be far-fetched to presume that during his travels, he caught the opera versions.

There are some very pragmatic books like Baedeker guides to Germany, the Rhine, Central Italy, Paris and Switzerland. It is significant that when he contemplated establishing a little Calamba in North Borneo, he actually read the book, “Java: or How to manage a colony,” and even Nasau Lee’s “Tea cultivation, cotton and other agricultural experiments in India.”

While the North Borneo plan did not materialize, Rizal’s books kept him company during his exile in the southern town of Dapitan. Would you believe he even had books on “The marvels of electricity,” “Drawings and ornaments of architecture,” and a six-volume set of studies of birds. The range of his interests was so broad.

We all know that Rizal was interested in history, that he had a good collection of Filipiniana, but few of us know that he had a copy of Napoleon’s memoirs as well as “Lives and Pictures of the Presidents of the United States.” Remember that in his Dapitan school, he taught his students English instead of Spanish. It is also notable that a similar book, if we are to believe Pio Valenzuela, was also in Andres Bonifacio’s library and reading list.

There is a saying, “Show me who your friends are and I will tell you who you are,” which has been paraphrased as, “Show me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.” Maybe we can add yet another version and say, “Show me what books you read, and I will tell you who you are.” While Rizal is studied from many different angles, many different sources (written and oral, primary, secondary and even hearsay), it is a new track to know Rizal through his books, the furniture of his mind.

Getting to know our heroes based on what they ate and read may produce new ways of seeing and understanding them.