National Artist F. Sionil José's 10 Recommended Reads

The National Artist for Literature recommends a variety of works, essential reading for lovers of the printed word.

The National Artist for Literature, one of the most widely read Filipino writers in English and whose works vividly grasp and grapple with the human condition, recommends a variety of works, essential reading for lovers of the printed word.

1. Noli Me Tángere and El Filibusterismo, by José Rizal

I read them when I was only 10 years old; these were the first two novels in English I read. Having always been relevant, Rizal was the local influence in my writing because I also grew up in a period rife with political turmoil. My writing is then politically charged—everything is political.

2. Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes

This was the third book in English I read, also when I was 10 years old. Nick Joaquin and I agreed on many things and disagreed on many things. We both agreed Don Quixote, written 400 years ago, is the best novel ever written. It is not only funny but also insightful. Anyone who wants to be a novelist must read it. It strikes the reader or prospective writer with its narrative technique. It’s such a thick book, but the story moves you, takes you on a delightful adventure.

3. My Ántonia, by Willa Cather

It’s a love story that is somehow platonic, about a boy in love with a girl he grew up with and who is a little bit older than he. Later, he became a successful lawyer in New York, while the woman was left in the countryside. It’s a novel of memory—a beautiful book and an American classic. The book I’m writing now is inspired by this.

4. The Socratic Dialogues

Plato and Xenophon wrote this in dialogue form to show the discourse between Socrates and other people. Socrates didn’t write anything, but he was quoted so many times in his day. He is my favorite Greek philosopher because he asked the most elemental questions about life and human beings. I love the Socratic precepts of virtue and excellence—these principles are very much needed now. Socrates said that to aspire for perfection, one must aim for the two goals of virtue and excellence. You can be very virtuous, but if you are not excellent, the virtue will come to naught. In the same way, you can be very excellent, but if you are not virtuous, the excellence will come to naught.


5. Po-on (Dusk), by F. Sionil Jose

This is the first novel in the acclaimed Rosales saga. It is about Rosales, Pangasinan, as it follows the story of an exiled family. The saga is composed of five books, and Po-on encompasses a hundred years of our history. Po-on was the last to be finished—the 1980s—but the first chapter was written in 1958. Because history is written by the victors, I did a lot of research to come up with a history from below for this book. Last January, The Guardian released an article, a list of the three best books on the Philippines. Po-on topped it.

6. Playing with Water, by James Hamilton-Paterson

His America’s Boy was on the Guardian’s list of the best books on the Philippines as well, but for me Playing with Water is much better than that. Playing with Water is the best nonfiction book on the country. It’s about his exile on a remote island in the Philippines where he joins the locals in several of their activities and livelihood, and it presents history from the ground up. Hamilton-Paterson wonderfully details the experiences of those in the rural society and shares his insights.

7. Stories of Manuel Arguilla, Nick Joaquin, Gregorio Brillantes, and Gilda Cordero Fernando

Although it’s enough to read Rizal for Philippine literature, you may want to read the works of our giants. These writers have the talent as proven by their language, the vast vocabulary from which precision emerges. While the craft of writing fiction can be taught and learned by reading—I did nothing else but read, write, sleep, and eat—imagination, originality, and creativity cannot be. Those are for you to develop like these writers have. They graduated from craftsmen to artists.


8. The New Yorker

The writers are great. Read it for its good essays.

9. For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway

A heavy book for it depicts war, hardship, the urgency to survive, and death, For Whom the Bell Tolls is one of Hemingway’s best novels. In the book, he captures wartime struggles for how they were through the clarity and precision of his narration and manages to show how people act humanely in the face of sufferring—that they can.

10. Books by Albert Camus

He’s my favorite French author and is one of the major influences in my writing. French writers like him have influenced me more than American writers have since the French have the tendency to be profound. They mix philosophy and literature, which is difficult to do well. I learned through Camus that you cannot blame God for everything, or think he is vengeful or sleeping all the time because the innocent suffer and die. God has nothing do with your life once he has given it to you. The gift of life: You are the one responsible for giving it meaning.

This story was originally published in the September 2014 issue of Town&Country.

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