Yes, Our Choice of Books Matter

Philippine elections bring out the worst in many, and the good in some (or not, depending on how you look at things). Or maybe it doesn’t matter, as the powers that be continue to wreak havoc on our so-called democracy. A pause is in order, yes?

The latest casualty of the 2022 campaign season is Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, and the novel’s title (not the book itself) has made its ‘necessary rounds’ in Philippine social media. Of course, more people know about it for all the misplaced, misguided, and plain wrong reasons. As a mere observer of a small Facebook newsfeed, I chanced upon a statement about people’s reading preferences – that we should not judge what people read because the Filipino reading culture is already poor, and I am assuming that ‘judging’ people’s choice of reading materials or books will somehow harm something that’s suffering from end-stage failure, to put it mildly.

What’s interesting about this reasoning is that there is an assumption that being (neo)liberal about the act of reading and just thinking about books will help the country’s reading culture. I am reminded of Rousseau’s Confessions, where he repeats a story about “a princess” who said “let them eat cake.” While Marie-Antoinette is often cited as the princess, the idea of a person being oblivious to the plight of common people is not new. In fact, the concept of “let them eat cake” is centuries old and actually exists in folklore. It’s safe to say that various versions of “let them eat cake” has existed throughout history, with one clear message – some people just don’t get it and would rather make sandcastles in the sky.

I’m trying to piece together the steps that lead to a remedy, but there is quite a distance between the statement and perhaps ‘where we should be’ if we were to help people read more.

About 20 years ago, getting your hands on reading materials was generally a practice in futility. I lived in the province and yes, I did have access to some books in school, but the entire day of schooling barely provided space for casual book exploration, let alone leisurely reading. I was lucky that we had many old books at home – some dating back to the sixties. They all waited patiently for me until I was nine or ten, when I could finally make sense of textbooks like childhood development and classics like The Social Contract. Reading these old books was my idea of a romp in the park. I became aware that reading was a privilege when I noticed that almost none of my peers knew or even understood what I read at home. If you grew up in the nineties, you talked about family, God, and lord knows what else, but never the important things like family conflicts and glaring privileges that people simply normalized as being part of the family.

My childhood reading journey was incredibly loose and unguided. No one told me what to read, and neither did I care what they thought I should be reading.

I realized early on that not all books had the same complexity, function, or usefulness. Some books were better than others. Some authors simply did not deliver. I read all sorts of things, from weekly magazines to Filipino fiction published by some academic presses. Saving for these books was no easy task, but I sincerely loved books, and I treasured all these titles and found both knowledge and a growing sense of awareness in them. I could say that I owe my life and my work now to all the books that I’ve read. All those books helped sharpen my mind, widened my vocabulary, and expanded my worldview. All my books helped me see beyond the peeling walls of what was construed as normal life.

I didn’t want to live a ‘normal life.’ I wanted to be an active participant in society. To live normally is to pretend that politics didn’t exist or wasn’t relevant to a person or community’s quality of life. I couldn’t possibly do that at full capacity if all I knew are TV shows or where to swim during the summer months. While I enjoyed regular conversations, a large part of me craved knowledge that would reveal all the hidden layers of the world. I made a vow that I would write a book myself, when I have something to offer the world.

These are the main reasons why I find it incredible for people to say that we should withhold criticism or judgement of the books that people read. If books can shape people’s lives, then those who live with books and especially those who write books have the ethical obligation to pursue a better reading culture. Pursuing a better reading culture requires even more reading and close reading of what the public considers ‘worthwhile’ or ‘good.’ Does this position reek of classism or gatekeeping? No. In a third world republic where there is inherent scarcity of people who understand how books work and what damage bad books can cause, book criticism is essential and does not detract from the goal of building a better reading culture. You can engage in dialogue with anyone and use your knowledge of books to help steer the culture, with all the ethical intent you can muster.

I think one of the reasons we don’t have a stable reading culture is that people simply do not know where to look for new texts or titles to read. Are top twenty posters at National Book Store enough? Even scarcer is the rationale to invest money, time, and energy into reading these new books. Of course, one can argue that not every learnt reader is ready to perform the role of the reader-critic. Granted, those who can, should try to help build a better public consciousness of what better books are. That is the first step. Our biggest mistake was we assumed that somehow, our reading culture will get better on its own. It’s not getting any better on its own.

A growing reading culture improves not just a person’s handling of language but also pervasive mores and beliefs. If the Philippine reading culture has been improving in the last half century, we wouldn’t be faced with so much political illiteracy and just plain ignorance of how Philippine society functions even at the barangay level. There are scarcely any new ideas flitting from one person to the other.

Why is the public still reliant on sparse ideas trickling down in social media – and most of these so-called ideas aren’t even reliable or valid. They’re ammunition from social media propaganda. With no buffer, the unread have no means to defend themselves against propaganda and manipulation. You cannot counter what you do not understand. You cannot defend yourself against ideas that are too big to comprehend because there is no foundation of knowledge to begin with. You cannot see past deception and lies if your mind can only comprehend the emotional impact of typography and images on social media graphic cards and memes. You will not be able to understand that you’re being given a premade script meant to stir your emotions, so you remain confused about history. These are just some of the vulnerabilities of a large segment of the population that has not grown up reading, and consequently, critically thinking about the world they live in.

I wonder from time to time why we find it essential to send children to school to learn algebra and the regions of the Philippines, but we say that all books are fine for reading just because people don’t have to read them for school. The elephant in the room is that we only consider reading essential when it’s done inside the classroom. Why not help people find better books beyond the tiny territory of private and public schools? Why do we keep saying that “any kind of reading is better than no reading” when we know full well that books can both save and destroy people? During all the crises that we must endure, we flog ourselves with so many half-baked theories and untruths like “any book is a good book.” We spend more time perusing online shops for Chinese goods than we do examining the books the public considers good reads. Why? Is it because we don’t consider reading important? If so, then why do we pretend that our reading culture is improving just because we’re liberal about it? Maybe it’s time to admit that many of us don’t even think about our reading culture anymore.

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