Portraits of May

Portraits: Of a young Rebecca Solnit finding, and fending for, herself; of the nature of dictatorships and revolutions by Ryszard Kapuściński; of Eastern Turkey under the veil of its dramatic landscapes by Zülfü Livaneli; of Paris and the poet through the vantage point of Henri Cole; of the unfortunate visage of Skylark by Dezső Kosztoláni. These are some of the extraordinary faces I met on this month of May.

It is not nearly celebrated enough, says Solnit: “The sheer pleasure of meeting new voices and ideas and possibilities, having the world become more coherent in some subtle or enormous way, extending or filling in your map of the universe…this beauty in finding pattern and meaning,” this thing called Reading.

Even so, here we are. The readers (ironically, the ones least concerned about faces), the ones who, by turning each page, celebrate best these encounters, these awakenings, these flights.

“At least I had books. Closed, a book is a rectangle, thin as a letter or thick and solid like a box or a brick. Open, it is two arcs of paper that, seen from the top or bottom when the book is wide open, look like the wide V of birds in flight.” — Rebecca Solnit, Recollections of My Nonexistence
“I’ve always believed that poetry exists in part to reveal the soul’s capacity for compassion, sacrifice, and endurance. For some of us, this satisfies a basic human need, like air or water, but a poem must also have music, imagery, and form. Because there is a kind of nakedness or authenticity in poetry that is associated with truth, on many days I haven’t got the guts for it, and I fail. But when I succeed, there is nothing in life — except love — that equally verifies my existence.” — Henri Cole, Orphic Paris

Containers for the Human Music

It is little known outside Ex Libris Philippines that this book club was founded by music and architecture majors during their university years at UP Diliman. 

On a trip to the capital last month, the music section of Ex Libris was able to convene whilst the architecture section was excellently acknowledged through the venue — The Library Cafe at the Ramon Magsaysay Center, an architectural icon in the Philippines named after our seventh president. 

I took this photo on our way in and it made me reflect on how architecture, literature, and music are the same spirit taking distinct forms and harnessing different planes of space in our lives. 

Although, through the years, I have come across books in which literature and architecture occupy the same space, and it is nothing short of fascinating when they do: Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, Boris Pekić’s Houses, Ivo Andrić’s Bridge on the Drina, Alain de Botton’s Architecture of Happiness, Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space, Mathias Énard’s Tell Them of Battles, Kings & Elephants, Elif Shafak’s Architect’s Apprentice, and my current read, Ben Hopkins’ Cathedral. And as we can see, when these two meet, sumptuous covers are a given.

In an interview on his book, Apeirogon, Colum McCann likened novelists to architects who create a structure aspiring that it will house the best of human endeavor and hope for it to endure, and for people to enter and be changed by it… so that it becomes “a container for the human music”. 

The idea and the verity of books as containers for the human music… Isn’t that beautiful?

Literary Symmetry

“I have relinquished Rome to the mercies of Tiberius and to the accidents of time.”

Augustus, John Williams (1971)

“I accept with calm these vicissitudes of Rome Eternal.”

Memoirs of Hadrian, Marguerite Yourcenar (1951)


“The barbarian will become the Rome he conquers; the language will smooth his rough tongue; the vision of what he destroys will flow in his blood.”

Augustus, John Williams (1971)

“If ever the barbarians gain possession of the world then will be forced to adopt some of our methods; they will end resembling us.”

Memoirs of Hadrian, Marguerite Yourcenar (1951)

Happy World Book Day!

Reader, I’ve done it.

I turned the last page of the Alexandria Quartet on World Book Day 2022!

About two decades ago, I stumbled upon a fourth of this elusive tetralogy in a secondhand bookstore. I say elusive because that is how beautiful books used to be, long before the advent of online booksellers and FullyBooked here in the Philippines. And you had to wait to chance upon certain books like you would for love, sometimes even thinking they’d never come. 

Ranked among the best English-language novels of the 20th century (I still feel that the 20th century writers remain unsurpassed), I decided to be romantic about it, telling myself that I would read none of it until I had collected all four books in the same edition — and secondhand. I only found the last piece of the puzzle last year and I knew it was time. 

The copies are all mass market paperbacks with vintage cover designs, spines that cracked as I opened them for the first time, and tanned pages that fell apart… as I, too, fell apart.

Maybe I now deserve to order the edition with the Jan Morris introduction? Perhaps after I write my review. But first, let me catch my breath…

2021 Book Tower

In case the Philippine IATF needs further proof of how much social distancing I’ve done, the plan was to build a tower out of the books I read this year (minus the e-books and several that are currently being lent to friends).

So what have we here? A ziggurat? Pyramid? Pagoda? Babel? I am not sure anymore, that’s why I refrained from posting this when I took the photo the other day. But it is 2021, after all. A year of things not turning out the way you envisioned them in your head. And apparently, I won’t make such a good architect. Haha

But here is a pile of my closest companions at a time when physical interaction was discouraged and I could not be with people I wanted to be with; fragment of a reply to Camus’ “It is because the world is, in its essence, unhappy, that we need to create some joy,” and partial answer to his “because the world is absurd, we must provide it with all its meaning.”

Yesterday, I got on a plane for the first time since the pandemic started, and suddenly I was flooded with a bright and warm clarity that translated everything I felt and thought — and I realized, this is reading. This beauty. Even without opening the book in my hand, this is reading. This beauty, when, at last, everything worth keeping from all those pages blossoms into something that transcends language inside of you.

This beauty, is why we read.