RICA BOLIPATA SANTOS: BELIEVING IN BOOKS

Thursday, March 05, 2015

It’s almost summer now. You can feel it in the sudden rush of heat in the afternoons. The mornings are still cool, our weather holding on to that last bit of frost. But the afternoons betray the annihilating heat that is to come. Suddenly, the nape is always sweaty.

I know summer is upon me because I begin to dream of the books I intend to devour during the break. My greatest splurges are my children and books. On the weekends, I go book hunting and add to the pile of books I haven’t accomplished yet. My children think it unfair that spending on books is always allowed. But that’s just the way it is, I tell them. That is the one thing I never ask them to justify. You can never argue with the value of a book. You can’t use that argument with clothes and accessories, sadly.



There’s always a particular time in the year when I get asked to be interviewed about the future of the book in society. The prognosis is always grim and slim. People are convinced that books are dying; that civilization is finally at its end because people would rather buy a smartphone than buy a book. This used to alarm me when I was younger. I could literally imagine the horror of a world with no books! What a soulless, passion-less world it would be indeed if books and reading books became passé!

Let me categorically say that books will live forever. The written word will not die. Now, how that written word comes to a reader, however, is a different story. You can now read a book on different kinds of platforms, and honestly, I think that’s a good thing. I have a Kindle and bring it with me everywhere I go. What makes me decide whether to buy a digital book or a physical book? For me, it’s simple. Books I want for forever are physical objects in my library. Here’s another rule: I only get free books for my e-reader. If I’m spending, I want something tangible. Any which way, my reading habits and practices remain the same. I am a reader and I read.

I am a terror when it comes to insisting my children read. I have a very simple, inviolable rule: they must always be working on a novel. As they’ve grown older, I’ve become less strict about technology calling upon Gibran’s poem as my argument: “Your children are not your children.” I accept that they are of a different generation with inherent moral and social issues. And so they use technology, but — and it’s a big but — they must always be reading. Even my special son has his own library.

Why fiction, you might ask? It’s partly literary snobbery, I suppose, but pedagogically, there’s so much to learn in fiction! Non-fiction, with the burden of insight, is for other skills. Non-fiction speaks of the world as is. Fiction speaks of the world as it could be. Just last night, my 11-year-old son finished a novel. He is not as natural a reader as my daughter who can read a book in a day. For the second time in his life (the first it happened was when he was reading Peter Pan), he didn’t want to sleep to finish a book. He closed the book and just sat there, dumbfounded. And then he stood up saying, “I have to talk to Ate to process my fiction feelings.” It doesn’t get any more satisfying than that.

What happens when you are a reader? I’ll be specific and promise you three things: one, you will have access to language, vocabulary and knowledge. The world is a world of symbol and sign. There are those who operate understanding the digital 1/0 nature of the universe, and we need those people! And then there are those who understand metaphor, and we need this kind of people, too. Understanding metaphor is key to maturity and to a kind of attitude towards reality. People who understand metaphor are generally more open-minded, keener to listen to a different point of view; better at arguing their point of view. They can look at issues and know that, at the heart of all things, there is a minimum of two stands. They have learned that the richer the metaphor, the more the available points of views. They acknowledge that this is a gift and not a curse. They are willing to see the possibility that anything could mean something else. For that is, after all, the nature of language. They know when people say, “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse,” that there’s no horse on standby for butchering.

People who read books are also generally judgmental. That’s because reading gives you aesthetics, meaning to say, a way of saying whether something is good or bad. After all, what makes one book better than another? Why are people reading Fifty Shades of Grey? Why do certain titles live forever? Filipino readers like to share their favorite authors and you’ll notice that when one author becomes famous, suddenly everyone is reading that author. A real reader encounters that kind of popularity with a degree of suspiciousness. When you have standards, you begin to want more from the world. Seriously. You want better books, better poetry, better buildings, better services, better columnists, better senators, better presidents.

My most favorite thing about reading is that it is a solitary, solitary act. It is one of the most authentic real activities that require a stillness that is disappearing more and more in this very modern world. There is a quiet to reading that is close to contemplation and prayer. Reading requires active meaning-making as you move from page to page, chapter to chapter, word to word. The harder the book, the more effort it takes to make that meaning. In a world where “easy” is of greater value, the counter-movement of “hard” being of more value is a worthy lesson. And what about time? It takes time to read a book. Most wonderful things take time. I know I’m old because I bemoan how people think of time these days. How busy we are to use up time! How little time we have left! Reading reminds us that there is time to dream. There is time to enter someone else’s world.

The truth is books are dangerous. There is a list of books that have been banned in history, in the world. Alice in Wonderland is one example. It makes you wonder what it is about Alice that could be so fearsome? Did the Queen stand for something metaphorical? Gustave Flaubert was charged with indecency for writing Madame Bovary, a novel about a woman and her infidelities. The sexiest scene there takes place during an agricultural show! The cows were sexier. And yes, until today, the Bible is banned in some countries. Books are dangerous because they give people ideas.

May I encourage you to read Filipino books by Filipino authors? We aren’t strangers to good books and dangerous books, considering that Rizal’s sparked a revolution. I am convinced that running through our DNA are the hopes and dreams of Crisostomo and Sisa and Elias and Basilio, and Maria Clara. It is revealing to me how historically we found ourselves through fiction. I assert that one way to find our future again, today, is through our books. When was the last time you read a Filipino book by a Filipino author? Between Joaquin and Murakami, in a dark alley, whom would you choose to save you? We talk all the time about nation building, a catchphrase that requires many paths and one sure path is through the building of books. All great ideas have books attached to them. Major religions all have a sacred text. We need people to write our stories, or else some other idiot will write us.

So I encourage you to read and to read your nation’s books. Leave the vampires to the others — you need only to go to Gilda Cordero Fernando and Yvette Tan and Greg Brillantes and Butch Dalisay and Jing Hidalgo and Cyan Abad-Jugo and Ian Casocot and Angelo Lacuesta and Dean Alfar and Nikki Alfar, et al to feed your need for fantasy. Shakespeare will never die, so let some other poet live: read how our poets Ophelia Dimalanta, Edith Tiempo, Neil Garcia, Jimmy Abad, Jose Garcia Villa, Carlos Bulosan, Simeon Dumdum, Ricky de Ungria, Mookie Katigbak-Lacuesta, Allan Popa, Kael Co and Kristian Cordero chart maps to the past and the future. And don’t stop at lit — read history, social science, science, law, and psychology, Read in English, read in Filipino, read in the vernacular languages and believe in the enduring power of books. Next time. I’ll list my favorite Filipino books!

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