Our reading culture has a pulse, for now

Among the many literary forms and genres, fiction is probably my oldest companion as a reader. I can still remember when I became devoted to a particular series. I was seven years old when I was first brought to National Bookstore. Which city in Metro Manila, I could no longer remember. I found myself staring at a wild rack of books with monster dolls and killer lizards.

Yes, it was R.L. Stine’s Give Yourself Goosebumps, and I loved every moment of reading it. Back then, I didn’t know that it was a gamebook. All I knew was that I could relieve different episodes of each storyline as many times as I wanted to. I probably found all the bad endings first—some stories all ended badly. But when you do chance upon the good endings, and the main character escapes certain death, or a lost boy finds his way home, you feel so good, and you feel that you’ve also become a part of the story’s fabric and the characters’ extraordinary universe.

I became obsessed with Goosebumps soon after. After months of rereading my first two Give Yourself Goosebumps books, I asked my mother for more. My mother was very supportive of my reading habit, and she gave me enough money to buy most of the books that I wanted, all the way to college. She may be the sniffiest woman around, but she was the most generous person when you wanted to buy books. She’s a grand lady for being my generous book sponsor during my childhood and teenage years. I made sure that whenever she had extra money for books, I only bought books that I was truly fascinated with.

Yes, I had a Harry Potter phase, too! I began with The Prisoner of Azkaban. I was in my third year of high school then, and I read the series in its entirety. Despite the author being a TERF and just generally annoying now, there was a time when J.K. Rowling helped shine a brighter light on fantasy literature written for children and young adults. The expansive Harry Potter universe was not unique, of course. There were many other authors who possessed incredible world-building abilities before Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone debuted in the nineties (fun fact!). Let’s not forget that there were plenty of science fiction titles from many masters of cosmic lore well before Harry Potter. These also deserve equal attention in your personal library or when you’re hunting for books at Book Sale or anywhere else where there are affordable books so you can stretch that budget and bring home more goodies.

The Lord of the Rings, of course, paved the way for box office film adaptations with lots of explosive scenes and CGIs. They made a lot of money from fantasy and the immense and memorable worlds that JRR Tolkien built to give life to all his books. And even then, less popular titles like The Hobbit (There and Back Again) and The Silmarillion are still worthy of any dedicated reader’s attention. We can consider these integral parts of the LOTR universe’ as comic buffs like to call it.

But then again, the real point here is that good literature/good books, regardless of their genres, can make the world a better place in the sense that they can greatly improve how people perceive what good reading can be about. And that’s important, especially today when there are so many distractions, and the idea of just sitting down and curling up to a good book is not as attractive as it used to be. Personally, I think that we began losing readers and a huge chunk of our established reading culture just around the time when the internet was becoming more affordable and technology just became a much bigger part of people’s lives. It’s actually strange because I was born in 1988, and I grew up in the nineties. The nineties and the decades that preceded my formative years were all about imagining what great technology would be like. I can still remember how people thought we would have flying cars or at least self-driving cars that were completely autonomous by 2000. Everyone went gaga over the fact that we were about to enter the new millennium.

In the Philippines, where everything was delayed because we’re a poor country and new technology took its time in taking root because of lack of capital or investors, there’s always been a cult that worshipped anything technological and anything new. When I was writing my second book, Field Trip, I dedicated a large chunk to what I called the provincial fantasy, which is thinking that everything outside the province was better, shinier, more improved, and more convenient. There’s a grain of truth in the stereotype of the probinsiyano who wants to leave everything behind in the province for more modern life in the Manila metropolis. The lack of access to what we thought we desperately needed in the provinces or the ‘fringes’ of the country bore a large hole in the public consciousness. You wake up thinking of the possibilities and what you might be missing out on as someone outside Metro Manila or any of these ‘cool’ places where capital was concentrated, and therefore, life was more urban and ‘modern’ compared to what we had back home.

I talk about these things because these smaller histories also play a role in shaping the reasons why people read or not. I believe that reading is something that anyone can take up at any point in their life, and they would still benefit from it no matter what. It doesn’t matter if you’re a factory worker, a teacher, or a member of the police. Reading changes minds, and it can change lives for the better. But before anyone can benefit from our reading culture, the primary motivation must exist. The motivation to read, unfortunately, is not at the level that we need it to be.

At the risk of collapsing the argument into vulgar economics, let’s just say that the Philippines ‘grew up’ distant from books and the joys of reading. If you can visualize our nation as a malnourished and alienated child growing up, and we are a fairly young nation, and that child never found any defining and urgent reasons to pick up books because they had so much in their mind that everything else was secondary to survival, then you would understand why there is no great motivation to explore the world of books, beyond the ‘super popular’ titles or maybe not even that.

It’s no surprise that there are so many Filipinos who can no longer remember when they last held and read a book. Reading may not be necessary for a person’s physical survival, but the impending collapse of the reading culture of any country should be cause for alarm. A nation that no longer reads will soon forget itself. It will end up a husk – a mere shadow of its former self. Who are we if we cannot remember our History? Who is the Filipino if we have lost sense of our past?

It comes as no surprise that we now live in a toxic and almost unbreathable world where the common Filipino has lost his bearing and is now repeatedly victimized online by organized and extremely well-funded disinformation campaigns. I use the term campaign here in the context of waging war. Disinformation campaigns through websites and social media serve the true masters of the country—the capitalist class or the moneyed elite. The purpose of disinformation and willingly misleading people to believe in illusions and invented ‘truths’ is to preserve the status quo and maintain control of people through the preservation of state ideology. Ultimately, the private interests of the moneyed class are also the goals and interests of the state. Therefore, a learned and reading population is dangerous – it is a threat to the existence of repressive and oppressive forces and institutions of the state. Reading, when understood in this sense, is essentially an act of resistance against the power of the moneyed class and the state. And while not all kinds of books guide the reader toward the path of political resistance, the mere fact that a person is reading means there is the possibility of them becoming open to critical texts that provide readers with a deeper and much better understanding of how a society should work.

Why do we feel so strongly against characters like Dolores Umbridge? Why do we want freedom for Dobby? Why do we dream of alternate realities when we watch Korean movies and romances?

Why did at least two generations define komiks along the lines of Pol Medina’s Pugad Baboy? Why did members of my generation look forward to Sunday comics more religiously than Roman Catholicism? Why did sidewalk vendors of old survive for decades selling horror komiks and serial publications like Funny Komiks?

Despite the worsening condition of our reading culture, I firmly believe that there is a strange but enlightening persistence of the written word despite all the hurdles of acquiring reading materials and finding enough time to read. Filipinos are still taking up the mantle of reading, despite it being a largely uphill struggle. In short, our reading culture still has a beating heart. Our reading culture may not have the strongest of pulses, but the pulse exists, nonetheless. Even after decades of institutional neglect, a portion of the population is actively finding ways to read, especially from the ranks of the young. As the young have yet to be assimilated fully into the grey zone of adulthood, where the usual priority is survival, and everything else takes a back seat to the daily struggle to stay afloat in a worsening economy.

Whether this pulse will persist long enough until Filipinos are ready to shock it back to full power, I’m not certain.

But one thing I’m certain now is we are running out of time.

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