It began in an outdoor tent of all places. I remember being a wide-eyed kid in the fifth grade browsing awkwardly through the titles on display at the Scholastic book fair that seemed to have magically popped up at my school one morning. Because I did not have money then, the salesclerk gave me a piece of paper bearing the header “wish list” where I should, she said, write down the books I wanted and their corresponding prices so that I could show them to my parents later on. And so I did.
For a 10-year-old kid who never really had an experience with handling money, as my mom insisted on sending me to school with snacks instead of an allowance all throughout elementary, a couple of hundred pesos seemed like the world. I went to school the next day with a clear vision: I was going home with a new book that day. Thus began a lifelong affliction.
In the words I found worlds. Pretty cliché, I know. But I suppose this is a collective memory for us awkward adolescents who tried to escape the schoolyard drama by wallowing in the pages of fiction. Who among us did not fantasize about receiving a Hogwarts letter or suddenly waking up to a post-apocalyptic universe? Weird as these thoughts may be now, but growing up, books offered some semblance of comfort in the prospect of other worlds so different from this one.
I carried this relationship with the written word well into high school. I used to save up a portion of my allowance for my weekly mall trips, where, by default, the first stop would either be National Book Store—back when it was more books and less store—or Booksale, with its allure of cheaper second-hand titles stacked somewhat haphazardly all over the place.
Naturally, our high school’s library became a sort of sacred spot for me, part refuge, part place for adventure. It was extremely small and cramped, but it was, in a way, the biggest part of the school with all the worlds it contained. I spent so much time there that the librarian found it fitting to leave me its keys at times, making me something sort of an unofficial school librarian (which came in handy whenever I needed to use the library printer for the schoolwork I so often crammed).
But when I entered UP and became inducted to its long tradition of malicious overthinking, even the act of reading and buying books became an area for problematization. I remember my freshman English professor expressing her disdain for copyright and outright advocating for the piracy of texts. That she was an accomplished writer who wanted people to pirate even her works seemed strange to me at the time, a sort of discordant position I could not readily reconcile in my mind.
In a Filipino class, I distinctly recall a heated discussion on why Filipinos consistently rank among the lowest in global reading comprehension surveys—a reality made so painfully clear by a 2020 DepEd report detailing how a staggering 70,000 elementary students in the Bicol region alone cannot even read. What does it mean to be a reader in a country where a sizable chunk of the population remains illiterate, impoverished, and probably starving, too?
For the longest time, my ever-growing pile of books, now numbering in the hundreds but some remaining unread even after years since purchase, has been a source of both pride and guilt. There is, as Edgar Calabia Samar so beautifully put it, an everyday sadness in knowing one is not reading enough. But the stack of unread books also serves, as Umberto Eco first pointed out, as a tangible reminder of how much we still do not know—an instant source of intellectual humility that runs counter to the predilection to complacency we in the educated class tend to fall into the trappings of.
More recently, a mix of middle-class guilt and the steady socio-political conscientization I got from the university both inside and outside the classroom made me look at my book collection in a different, more critical light. The image of Smaug from Tolkien’s The Hobbit came to mind, the greedy dragon who sits lazily atop his massive pile of wealth while proudly declaring that he will not part with a single piece despite not having any immediate use for the treasure.
But I know the burden of democratizing knowledge lays not in those who have hoarded piles of the written work. How many other children would have been bookworms had their parents earned enough money to send a couple of hundred pesos with them to the next book fair that pops up? Or simply had access to a functioning school library. To borrow words from the poet Conchitina Cruz, the aforementioned English teacher: “It is more crucial to foreground the inherently restrictive role of material conditions in the activity of reading any kind of literature. The ordinary Filipino cannot afford to be a reader.”
These days when Zoom calls force us to share a snapshot of our domestic situations, bookcases seem to have become a popular video call background, owing, perhaps, to the fact that book ownership is an acceptable way to signal one’s capital, whether cultural or otherwise. Truth be told, it takes an extraordinary amount of privilege to be able to not just afford books but actually have the time to read them in this society that values a myopic view of productivity over leisure, profit over welfare.
The challenge for the educated class, then, is to find ways to use our talents and skills—the cultural capital we accrued from having free time, thanks to the labor of others—to democratize the society that allows for both book-hoarding and illiteracy simultaneously. Doing so necessitates a more equitable distribution of wealth, there is no other way around it. Books are meant to be read, and our books deserve more readers. ●
The article was first published on February 17, 2021.
Feb 10, 2024
Wala akong hangad na angkinin ang oras mo. Bakit ko naman gagawin iyon, kung sa mga kwento mo tungkol sa iyong pagkilos ay nakikita kitang masaya, nabubuhayan ng loob na magpatuloy at magpakahusay.
Feb 10, 2024
Bago maiahon ni Jimenez sa nais na katanyagan ang UP, esensyal na masigurong nakalapat muna ang kanyang pamumuno sa pagtugon sa kagyat na kahingian ng mga sektor ng pamantasan.