by Cygne Sauvage
My hometown was a laidback locale dotted with evidences of Spanish colonialism. Among these are robust buildings in Baroque style that looked weird for us who were conditioned to simple, plain architectural designs. One of these structural remnants was an edifice that used to be a court especially established by the foreign country to try cases of rebellion by the indigenous inhabitants. After the war, for lack of school facilities the local government turned this into a complex for learning. It was within this area of eerie atmosphere that I spent my primary years in school, and that before I gathered later in life that such construction always has a small attic that resembles a tiny dwelling meant to keep important mementos, our teachers rather used it to threaten us for their convenience, peddling the tale that it was intended for naughty children who the elves will pull up and chain. Hence, we must always behave so as not to anger the mythical creatures. This was their method to silence us. Unfortunately, these were the kinds of educators I encountered in my formative period.
Another beautiful edifice the colonialists left behind housed the public library which was no larger than a corporate boardroom. A complete set of the Encyclopedia Britannica, novel at that time, was displayed at the entrance but restricted from being freely used by a visitor. The system was rather bureaucratic. One has to fill out a form of request, present an ID and sign another sheet of paper for some kind of liability statement. Thus, who would bother to frequent this place of study? Inside are a number of tomes that speak of the culture of the donor country, usually the United States, as part of the war reparation agreement.
The library was an ideal place of retreat for me to avoid housework, feigning scholarly pursuit. Further, I was spared the tedious process of borrowing a book by the chief librarian who was our neighbor, and who was so delighted to have an additional patron who is familiar, in a somber space of vacant chairs and just three or four readers. A man in his mid-twenties at that time was a regular habitue who stayed the entire duration reading any book which he got at random from the shelves. He usually arrived before the opening time and had to be talked to diplomatically to leave at the closing hour. Often, I would spot him mumbling to himself like “oh, this is crazy, this is crazy, ” while browsing a voluminous opus.
The story going around households was that the man, who was from a prominent family, lost his marbles for being forced to follow in the footsteps of the patriarchs in his family, who all were in the medical profession. An exaggerated version of the man’s tragic life was that in order to please his elders he tried to study and read excessively until this became a compulsion. People, the old folks in particular, believed that it was his having overdone perusing books that drove him to lunacy. Thus, the only place where I could find solace and feed my intellect was deemed as sanctuary for those whose sanity has left them. My folks at home would even warn me not to engage too much in serious reading for I might end up like the “bookworm,” the moniker the community gave him, tinged with mockery, bereft of compassion.
The public library was among the first to suffer from the financial crunch, indicative of the skewed priorities of the authorities. Worse, the decrepit remnant of the Spanish colonials was razed to the ground to give way to commercial fast food centers. On occasions I would pass by, I would recognize the spectacle of the man in front of the construction, yelling at the workers for having destroyed his books.
Returning home after many years of joining the diaspora of citizens seeking the proverbial greener pastures, I learned that the town has established a new library, and this time with a museum. It was in a modern, yet rundown building, though more spacious than the one where I usually spent the afternoons of my summer vacation years ago. Quite apparent, however, were the empty shelves. As explained to me, there was no allocation for the purchase of editions, relying only on donations. Due to manpower constraints, on the other hand, the staff could not sort out the boxes of old books solicited from concerned scholars. Such non-viable situation casts doubts on the sustainability of a decent bibliotheca, depriving myriad starving minds access to a wellspring of knowledge, suppressing the blooming of young ingenuous thinkers unfortunate not to have the learning resources both at home and school.
Ironically, a huge water fountain emitting array of colors embellishes the frontage of the plaza, a stone’s throw from the place that’s supposed to be the fountain of learning, a more essential one, but did not get the same financial favor.
Thus, the chairs were still all vacant, not even an avid “bookworm.”
Acknowledgment: The picture is the design cover of Ayn Rand’s book The Fountainhead.