WHEN I was a teenager and I started to read rather compulsively, I did not mind bestsellers at all. I knew those are books that today might be in fashion, but tomorrow could fall into a deserved oblivion, as most of them actually do. I wanted to read books that generations of readers before me had appreciated, books that had passed the test of time, books that provided not only entertainment, but answers, or even new questions I had not thought of before: books that mattered. And for that purpose, I had to go to books tagged as classics, the canon. This does not mean I do not read from time to time detective novels from Agatha Christie or terror stories as the ones by Stephen King. I do and I enjoy it, but literature is somehow like wine, and good books are able to leave a lasting, meaningful, sometimes indescribably flavor in your palate; and that wonderful impact can be remembered years later.
Against popular opinion, classic books are not difficult to read: they are difficult to write.
The painful process of creation is hidden to the reader, who is just left to enjoy a masterpiece made of carefully chosen words. Crime and Punishment (1866) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Essays (1580) by Michel de Montaigne, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) by Gabriel García Márquez or the tales of Edgar Allan Poe are not only fun to read, you can read them over and over again; and the texts and characters are so rich that the reader can often find something new in each successive reading. Hundreds of passionate love stories, adventure novels and travel literature belong to the classics.
Literature can be also understood as the heritage of a nation and that’s why many countries have their own standard collection of national classics. For example, in the United Kingdom and the United States, publishing houses like Penguin and Norton, and prestigious academic printing presses like Oxford and Cambridge, publish carefully edited books in English, from the medieval Beowulf to the poems of T. S. Elliot. The dramas of Shakespare have been edited hundreds of times, and each new edition of Hamlet provides a new perspective about that enigmatic character. Penguin has included in its collections Philippine literature in English — Nick Joaquin and Jose Garcia Villa as far as I remember — meaning they belong to the canon in English, authors than can be read, appreciated and enjoyed by readers all over the world because their creations challenge the national boundaries where they were born and appeal to readers of all latitudes. In Spain, we have publishing houses Cátedra, Castalia and Crítica, and our national tradition of great philologists have produced excellent editions. The critical introductions and the footnotes do not only serve to better understand the book we have in our hands by explaining the different versions of the manuscript, the life of the author or some intricacies of the plot we might miss, they truly honor the book. Mediocre books do not deserve — usually — the attention of scholars.
Similar collections do exist in Italy (Garzanti, Einaudi, Carocci), France (Garnier, Flammarion, Seuil) or Germany (Reclam), and they do not only pay attention to national authors. They also dignify their own language by publishing translations of the best of world literature. In that way, Hungarian classics can be read in Spanish, Albanian novels can be read in French and the best Cuban literature can be read in German.
What about the Philippines? Despite the recent efforts of the Komisyon Sa Wikang Pilipino, which is translating world classics — Guy Tolstoy, Guy de Maupassant and H. G. Wells — into Filipino. Great job! The task seems to be still in the very first steps if we talk about recovering in a single collection the best of Philippine literature — in any Philippine language, of course. We find here the additional problem of having two parallel literary traditions: the indigenous one, traditionally oral, practiced in many different languages and the modern one, with literary genres imported from the West during the Spanish period and materialized with the help of the printing press. Both of them deserve attention, for different reasons. The first one needs to be rescued, carefully edited — better in bilingual editions — and printed for their preservation before indigenous people stop transmitting their oral stories, something that has sadly and unavoidably happened. With modern Philippine literature, we face the problem of a multilingual society. If for example, we wanted to make a collection of the best Philippine novels — written in Tagalog, Cebuano, Spanish, English, Waray, Bicolano, etc. — we would need not only an expert in the said literature, but a good translator — into English or Filipino?
I really miss the existence of a literary collection exclusively devoted to the publication of careful editions of the best Philippine literature as many other countries have. And this lack is even more painful when you realize the originality and the creativity of Philippine authors. Literature, as history, art, language, is an essential component of the culture and a tool to legitimize the very existence of the nation. How many years will have to pass until the Philippines will finally have a modern edition of the complete works of José Rizal?