20 Books Every Filipino Should Have on His Shelf

We once held a photo shoot at a very posh home in a super exclusive subdivision. The stage was set and everything was complete: the marble flooring was polished by the uniformed maids to such a rigorous sheen that we could not tell apart the sullen model and her reflection. The light was so rich and so full that the BIR came and insisted on taxing us for it. The fixtures were so exquisite that we felt the urge to genuflect at every wall sconce, thinking that it held the very light of God.

It was only when we asked for a couple of books to accent a piece of mid-century furniture that reality hit hard: the owner of the house was never acquainted with books and apart from the security guard’s logbook, there was not a single bound thing in the house.

The lesson, of course, is that it is not just the décor that makes the house, or indeed the man of the house. It is the intellectual fixtures that speak eloquently of the owner, who then doesn’t need to talk about himself much, in order to behoove dinner guests and casual visitors to wonder to themselves: “What sort of a man lives here?” and “I wonder what it’s like to be in bed with that man.” Which is why we at Esquire have decided to offer helpful advice—in 20 volumes, as it were—on how to host a captive reading public in your very own home.


1| Reportage on Crime by Quijano de Manila

Everyone loves pulp fiction. It’s always an easy read and there’s a sex scene on every fifth page. This is not your regular pulp fiction book. In fact, it’s not even fiction. It’s Nick Joaquin, for God’s sake (under an alias). Anyone who doesn’t know him should be kept off the premises. Or at least denied the good scotch.

Related reads: Tropical Gothic and Manila, My Manila, both by the same author.

2| UP Diksiyonaryong Filipino by Virgilio Almario

Keeping this proper bilingual dictionary always within reach means, appropriately, two things: that you have your feet on the ground and you have an agile tongue. Also, two words: UP and Filipino.

Related reads: Making Out in Filipino by Renato Perdon

3| How Do You Know Your Pearls are Real? by Barbara Gonzales

For the ladies who visit, this dreamy memoir is a perfect way to while away the two or three hours you are going to spend inexpertly crushing ice and mashing up mint leaves. Our advice is to have two or more copies at hand, as they tend to disappear quickly—just like the very one we thought we had on our shelf.

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Related reads: A Wilderness of Sweets and The Butcher, the Baker, the Candlestick Maker, both by Gilda Cordero-Fernando; also, Magnificence by Estrella D. Alfon

4 and 5| The Noli and Fili by Jose P. Rizal

Because all Filipino literature proceeds from these two novels, and because you really didn’t care for any of those Rizal movies they made. Well, except for Rizal Sa Dapitan.

Related reads: Editions of the Noli and Fili in other languages

6 and 7| The Philippines: A Past Revisited and The Philippines: The Continuing Past by Renato Constantino

A.K.A. the great unread half of all our schoolboy classes in Philippine History. While not without their flaws and obvious biases, they’re better than nothing, and still better than everything we thought we knew.

Related reads: Philippine Society and Revolution by Amado Guerrero

8| The Family Code

Requisites! Rights! Obligations! Relations! And of course, matters of legitimacy and illegitimacy. Because one day it might come in handy when you least expect it. Plus it makes a good warning for the ill-intentioned visitors you can’t help but bring home. From time to time.


9| The Labor Code

This highly unattractive book delivers two attractive messages: that you are either a labor lawyer who wears his heart on his sleeve or a businessman who keeps a large workforce. Of course, you might also give an impression that you are a laborer, which is why you should always dress for the job you desire, not for the job you have.

10| Great Philippine Jungle Energy Café by Alfred A. Yuson

Ah, Pintada. When you bring a tattooed woman (such as we all wish we could) into your home and into your life, make sure to open to that page and compare and contrast, ink to ink, skin to skin. If she measures up, she’s a keeper—just like this book is.

Related reads: Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco and Firewalkers by Erwin Castillo.

11| The Distance to Andromeda and Other Stories by Gregorio C. Brillantes

There’s no one like Brillantes on your shelf to show guests that you’ve been a lover of Filipino literature since your Catholic school days.


Related reads: On a Clear Day in November Shortly Before the Millennium by the same author and The Bread of Salt and Other Stories by NVM Gonzalez

12| Penmanship by Jose Y. Dalisay

Arguably the best of his short fiction collections, and certainly the most mature, this book is operations manual and to-do list for every aspiring writer. (It also sports one of the most literal book cover interpretations of a title ever.)

Related reads: Soledad’s Sister by the same author and Conversion and Other Fictions by Charlson Ong

13| Happy Endings by Luis Katigbak

Keep this book in easy sight and your guest is sure to kick o? her heels, tuck her feet under her and cry for everything she has lost.

Related reads: Daisy Nueve by Menchu Aquino Sarmiento and A Normal Life by Reine Arcache Melvin

14| Let’s Cook with Nora Daza

These days, everyone and his brother wants to be a fucking chef. You have a right to that dream, of course, so you may keep your Montagne and your Rombauer—and your Adria, if you like to match your culinary ambitions with bourgeois affectation. But bear in mind that most Filipino tables owe their everyday fare to this slim volume in newsprint. My mother, who was a compleat woman—such as the ones you might wish to attract—kept hers covered in plastic and sandwiched between Frankly Feminine and How to Win Friends and Influence People.


15| Lonely Planet Philippines

It’s sad when Filipinos need to refer to tour guides written by foreigners, but this franchise really does hit it on the head when it comes to where to go, what to do and where to get laid. And you might want to complement it with guides on other countries—even places you’ve never been. If you feel guilty about all this white lying, put them on the fiction shelf.


16| r+a+d+i+o by Ricardo de Ungria

De Ungria wrote this book of poems at an age when most people think that having more than 100 likes on a Facebook post about What God Wants Them to Know is a great accomplishment. I would give this book 100 likes if I could.

Related reads: Jolography by Paolo Manalo and The Highest Hiding Place by Lawrence Lacambra Ypil

17| Dead Aim by Conrado De Quiros

Some might see it as flawed and a bit over-written, but it’s dead (see what we did there) engaging and compelling—and it’s always hot to see a woman worked up over political issues. “Hey! We’re on the same page—69!” (Jokes about mutual oral-genital gratification never get old.)

Related read: Shadow of Doubt by Marites Dañguilan Vitug

18| The Francisco Arcellana Sampler

Whoever thought of calling this a “sampler” was probably out of his mind. This is “The Yellow Shawl.” This is “The Mats.” This is the main course. This is the mother lode. Make sure this book is on your shelf.  Read this book. Ignore your companion.


Related read: The Gilda Cordero-Fernando Sampler

19| Tropical Living

For the hoity-toity literary upper crust, coffee table books are not really books but just a bunch of photos stitched together and sold at exorbitant prices to the Great Unread. But we’ll make an exception for the well-curated and well-put together. We find that a book that features good-looking homes is almost as effective as a good-looking home.

Related reads: Anilao and Bahura, both by Gutsy Tuason

20| America’s Boy by James Hamilton-Paterson

A must for everyone born in the ‘70s and later. This entertaining and fascinating read reminds me of the time I watched Schindler’s List and heard someone wonder aloud at the end: “Grabe, true story kaya ito?”

Related reads: Waltzing With a Dictator by Raymond Bonner and Days of Disquiet, Nights of Rage by Jose F. Lacaba

This article was originally published in the May 2012 issue of Esquire Philippines. Minor edits have been made by Esquiremag.ph editors.

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Sarge Lacuesta
Editor at Large, Esquire Philippines
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