Update: This article was written decades ago, and may still behold truth like many of you discussed below. Copyright to the Manila Chronicles.

Some years ago, a friend of mine observed that in Japan, the bookshop seemed to be the most popular feature of practically every street block. While in the Philippines, instead of bookshop, it was the beauty parlor vying closely with the sari-sari store.

In commiseration, I made the wistful remark that at the turn of the century in London, Virginia Woolf was already making good money doing just book reviews for newspapers and periodicals, and through her highly rarefied novels and short stories, some of which became bestsellers of her lifetime.

Even in those days, a writer as difficult as Woolf had an audience, those who were willing to exchange hard-earned money for her often esoteric experimentation with language and literary forms.

In sad contrast, almost a century after Ms. Woolf was able to support herself with her writing, Filipino writers would starve if he or she depended solely on “literary writing.”

It seems certain now that Filipinos will never become book readers. To paraphrase, George Bernard Shaw, Filipinos will go from being primitives to becoming exhausted as a civilization, without ever having been civilized enough to read books.

Why is this shameful fate of our lot as a nation? There are a few facile reasons that we could cite, we don;t mean sheer poverty either, for even among the richest Filipinos, they hardly read books.

A book, whether a novel, a compilation of poetry, or a collection of essays or short stories, is one of the most demanding forms of intellectual engagement available, a one-on-one relationship and challenge. A book must be met in certain solitude so that the sentences and chapters will seep through the readers consciousness of the reader.

The problem is Filipinos hate solitude. Count the number of Filipinos you know who enjoy being alone, and being in a book. For them, it’s absolutely terrifying.

Reading a book requires time and patience; endurance, if need be. It isn’t over in an hour or two like movies or television shows. And Filipinos with our ningas-cogon tendencies, like our entertainment fast and light, have suitably short attention span.

Furthermore, books deal with ideas, worked out mainly through characters and plots. There is always some horrid symbolism lurking somewhere, and the conflict of one system of thought against another. However for most of us, we prefer our conflicts played out among personalities rather than in ideas–it’s much easier that way and more exciting. Ideas can be so dull.

Another facter could be one reads a book in silence. Solitude na, ideas pa, and then silence? It is too much for average Filipino. It just goes against all cultural traits–the need to move in herds, in exuberance and gaiety, in love songs and dances. Rilke be hung, give Filipino La Bamba any day.

A great pity, of course, and dangerous, too, when non-readers like Imelda Marcos (who was never seen reading a book from cover to cover) get positions of power.

How much does Cory Aquino read, does anyone know?

Alas! Perhaps the only Filipino who read assiduously these days are the Marxists with their tones on agrarian reform, Nicaragua on its liberation theology, and the Latin American political novelists. No wonder they’re often ahead in the game.

Still, here’s to the little band of Filipinos who do read, who scrimp and save to buy the expensive pocketbooks of the latest novels from Europe and Latin America, from Japan, from the Philippines. Even rarer than the Filipino reader is the Filipino Writer. But that topic is too sad for words.

-Β© The Manila Chronicle, 1987
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