This week marks the 38th Manila International Book Fair, an annual, huge expo where numerous publishing houses gather for five days to sell their publications while thousands of book lovers, fanatics, loafers, students, academicians, authors’ fans and dreamers visit the stalls. My nearly a decade-long stint in Baguio which ended last year has prevented me from going through the previous Book Fairs, apparently a big event for enthusiasts of reading. Spending the past year in Manila to teach finally enabled me to go to the Book Fair for the first time and score some good books in mostly discounted prices. It was fun; it was like the regular mall sale only that instead of fellow lovers of clothes or shoes, you were surrounded with fellow eager-beavers for books. You could have missed a Jose Garcia Villa somewhere, but at least you found a book by Edel Garcellano or Vladimir Lenin.

Books scavenged

Having returned to Baguio again just recently, I would have missed this year’s Book Fair. But I am not totally sulking. While the nation’s capital would have again delighted on the mere fact that a big enough site is mainly filled with books—not to mention the sheer possibility that one can score a long sought-for book or a book’s rare edition—I would be waiting for either another dead time or a conscious longing to book hunt in my favorite bookstore tambayans near Session Road. Only that something else transpired.

Just last week, Miss Maricar of Bookends posted pictures of tons of books she was giving away. She said that she was making space not exactly for new books that are forthcoming but for her own work and personal space. In our own correspondence, she also spoke of her advocacy to encourage reading, especially among children. Later on, she told me that one library from Sagada and another from Nueva Ecija have expressed their interest in picking up some of the books—ten sacks for the former, 20 for the latter. How much books Bookends has in excess and not wish to make money from them!

I was trying to figure out the underlying framework that differentiates this Bookends’ initiative from the mega-Book Fair happening every year in Metro Manila. The former does not only downplay profit (one can say that the Book Fair is doing this to an extent, as some items displayed there are on sale), it shuns this altogether. One does not display books for sale; one gives them away, stripping them of their monetary value and paving the way for the appreciation of their more intangible qualities—the knowledge they contain or the sense of enjoyment one can get from having or browsing them.

I was also thinking of Walter Benjamin and how something that he said in “Unpacking my Library” also undercuts the normalcy of monetary operations. Benjamin wrote, “Writers are really people who write books not because they are poor, but because they are dissatisfied with the books which they could buy but do not like.” I was even guessing that there is already a tinge of arrogance here, a tiny effort to owe oneself some respect. Some writers used to or continue writing because they are poor; they had to have something to eat and writing was a way to have money. I would not belabor here on how this setup affects one’s writing—its quality, its very content, its presentation. So the first part of what Benjamin said was a lie. The second part may have been another bending of truths, an exaggeration. It only implies that the quality books are less affordable; that what applies to other commodities like phones or appliances for instance also apply to books: you want good products; you ought to pay for them.

Thankfully, that is not exactly the case. I am sure many other crazy book hunters have stories resembling my experience of finding Jacques Ranciere in Booksale for just 125 or one of Angela Carter’s earlier and rarely available novels online for just 80. A friend found and bought a David Foster Wallace for just 50; another got Benjamin’s Illuminations for 60 golden pesos.

Again in our correspondence, Miss Maricar of Bookends shared to me how she saw her vision of having books as gifts aligning with her larger advocacy of invigorating our culture of reading. When she mentioned the word “gift,” I recalled reading a related idea proposed by McKenzie Wark—the “copygift.” He said that “rather than giving one’s culture to everyone in the abstract but no one in particular, one made it always a particular gift to particular people.” Connected to but distinct from the act of putting one’s work—a collection of poems, an artwork, a short video—out there, in the streets, in the Internet, for free so that anyone who might be interested can view or take it, the idea of copygift has more intimacy, as if creating something for a particular person and then giving it to her or him.

At the end of the week, goers to the Book Fair might be full with their enormous haul and like someone screwy and clumsy, I wish I can take part of their joys. Maybe some of them bought books with the idea of giving them as gifts later on. That is lovely. Elsewhere, alternative relationships and attitude towards books and culture are being posited, being done. Surplus books are being given away for free, in support of advocacies. Books, literary works or art are not merely being bought to expand one’s personal library but being created to be given to others as gifts.

*this was also published in Baguio Chronicle’s September 16-22 issue