Books, Personal Experiences

Can we just stop and read awhile?

I’ve been often asked how I’ve come to love reading so much. I got this question most frequently when I was in high school, but I would sometimes be asked the same thing in college. The most practical answer I’ve come up with is – the least sentimental and the least philosophical – it’s a behavior nurtured since childhood.

I was raised in a household of books. If there is anything I appreciate about my packrat mother and grandmother, it’s the collection of books we’ve amassed over the years. Textbooks from my sister and my elementary years,  my uncles’ hardbound reference books on architecture and graphic design, stacks of Reader’s Digest from the 1970s, their pages brown  and brittle with age.  Though no one in the family studied law, we also have a sizable collection of law books, leatherbound and emblazoned with gold-lettering. These were originally owned  by a neighbor which was a family of lawyers, who, perhaps wanting to make space for newer, more updated law books, threw them in the subdivision dump site, a piece of land which was just beside our house. My grandmother, lover of the unloved, salvaged them from the dump and gave them shelter in our home library.

Many of the Reader’s Digests had pages scribbled over with overlapping orbits in blue ink. My mother says the culprit was a three-year-old psychopath let loose with a blue ballpoint pen. That psychopath is supposed to be me.

With books filling every nook and cranny of our house, it stands to reason then that I would grow up a voracious reader. Then again, and this really puzzles me, why am I the only reader in the family? It turns out, as I’ve realized now, that my mother and grandmother’s penchant for saving books is not so much out of love of reading as out of compulsion to indiscriminately gather things, nothing more. Now my mother would pick a book from my own collection now – novels, creative writing textbooks, poetry and essay anthologies – and ask, “How much?” Because I can’t possibly remember book prices, I’ve learned to answer that with, “I got it from the second-hand shop,” which was what the majority of my books really are.

Readers in the Philippines have always been regarded like unicorns.  Love of reading is, unfortunately, not a widespread cultural trait. Train passengers would rather plug their ears with earphones or occupy their hands pushing buttons on their mobile phones than read a newspaper.  Even an author of paperback romance, which is enjoying much readership in the country now, would never be a Danielle Steele.

Readers in the Philippines have always been regarded like unicorns.  Love of reading is, unfortunately, not a widespread cultural trait.

What exactly is love of reading, anyway? How does one know whether someone is bibliophilic or not? At its most basic, a bibliophile is someone who can’t not read, who feels a gaping hole inside him when a day goes by without him opening a book. Not because the final exams are underway, but simply because it feels good.

Various theories have been put forth to explain our apathetic attitude towards books, the most common being economics. Someone from a third world country like ours would rather buy  rice than buy a second hand novel, which, based on current rates, can be as much as three kilos of rice.

I recently came across this article on Filipino’s communication styles published on the UP Forum (Filipino Culture and Access to Information, Celeste Ann Castillo Llaneta, UP Forum, May-June 2011).  A professor was quoted as saying that Filipinos are not a reflective people.  Florangel Rosario Braid, the professor, observes that we tend to prefer the trivial to the significant.

This statement sheds much light on the issue at hand. The very act of reading is an act of reflection. You stop and take a seat with the book in your hand, with nothing but the author’s thought and your own in your mind. If done the right way, soon you start digging deep into yourself, asking questions, challenging your existing biases.  And this is something that many Filipinos are averse to doing. We would rather ask esteemed people in our community – a parent, a teacher, a priest– about something we know little about than read up on them,  says another professor, Benjamina Paula Flor, in the same article. Probably because it is safer that way. We’d rather not look behind the surface of things than plumb their depths because doing so would inevitably expose their uglier side. We prefer the status quo. This is why the most vocal people I know, unafraid to speak their minds, are also well-read ones. Is it all those centuries of colonization, those centuries  of conditioning to always shut one’s mouth and accept the existing order of things?

Sometimes, I wonder whether Filipinos would ever give reading the love it deserves.  Given the encroachment of the Internet and the supposed perils it brings to people’s attention span and Filipinos’ infamy as passionate social media users, will we ever muster the attention to read something lengthier than a 140-character gibber from a celebrity? I hope we do so, because we are missing a lot.