Wednesday, February 6, 2008

The Romance of Books

The romance of books
Looking Back column item by Ambeth Ocampo
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 00:44:00 02/01/2008

MANILA, Philippines -- Whenever I assign my students to do some research in the library, they roll their eyes, murmur audibly, and, I’m sure, curse me under their breath. Asking many of them to handle a book in the digital age is a clear indicator of my age: Jurassic!

For many years now, I have been described as a “young historian,” two words that do not quite go together in the common mind because historians are usually old, senile, or six feet under. My relative “youth” prompted dismissive remarks from some dinosaurs in academia who are fortunately nearing extinction.

Having to face two large classes of frisky sophomores twice a week makes me feel my true age. Fortunately, patches of gray hair now give me an air of respectability. To keep up with my students and try to understand their world, I spend long hours surfing the Net these days, looking up sources they can access on their computers.

I’m happy that the first book printed in the Philippines, “Doctrina Cristiana” (1593), can be viewed on the Net from the US Library of Congress. You can actually flip the pages as if you had the physical book in front of you. Internet research can save a scholar in Manila the expense and trouble of traveling to Washington, D.C. to see the “Doctrina,” but the sheer joy of physically handling this rare book on rice paper, the only copy in the universe, is priceless.

Surely young people today value other things, but there is a romance with the printed word that only comes with books. You can download and print a hard copy of a digital or scanned book, but it can never replace the sensual joy of fondling the ribbed leather binding with the raised gold stamping on the spine, sensing a scent of printers ink and age that charges the air when you open an old book. Then there is the sight of gold edges and beautiful type. You do not have to be a Filipino historian to get a thrill leafing through the handwritten manuscripts of “Noli Me Tangere” and “El Filibusterismo.” Even the offset reprints of these manuscripts provide delight for people who encounter them for the first time. I just hope that assigning students to read real books will spark a lifelong affair with reading and the desire for learning.

My students also complain when I send them to museums and Intramuros. They don’t know their way in Manila, as they would their favorite malls. They complain about museums being far, of having visited these before and remembering only that they were bored witless. I encourage them to explore the past with their friends, so that they can at least be bored together, and quite often, what began as a chore turns out to be a wonderful experience.

Some people have found the love of their lives while contemplating a Ming bowl with frolicking Fu dogs in the National Museum. They hold hands while contemplating Jose Rizal’s vertebra in Fort Santiago or wondering why San Pedro Martir in the cloisters of San Agustin has a bloodied bolo slicing into his head. I have not come across any student, no matter how bored and jaded, who was not awed by Juan Luna’s “Spoliarium” and Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo’s “Assassination of Governor Bustamante.” We have enough blood and gore in these two paintings to make any visit to the recently opened National Gallery worth the trouble and the price of admission.

I visited the “Spoliarium” last week and was rather distressed that I was the only person in the hall, aside from the guard. If our past is so important, our culture and history essential, why aren’t people breaking down doors to enter our museums and libraries? Why do young people have to be herded or forced to visit museums when these are the first things they visit when they are abroad?

People often ask me to lecture on “how to make history interesting.” I always insist that history is interesting and if you think otherwise, the problem was not the subject matter, it was probably your teacher or your textbook.

After spending the better part of the Christmas holidays sorting books, I now look at my collection pleased by a modest shelf of rare or out-of-print titles (mostly Filipiniana printed before 1950) as well as autographed or presentation copies of books.

Someday these books will be more valuable than they are at present. I placed all the 19th-century books together, all those in pigskin or leather bindings side by side, and one particular volume stood out: “A Visit to the Philippine Islands.” It has an impressed, embossed leather cover ornamented with an image of a Filipina carrying fruits. First published in 1859, this book by Sir John Bowring, former governor of Hong Kong and Her Britannic Majesty’s plenipotentiary to China, has a detailed and illustrated account of a visit not just to Manila but also to the provinces. It even has a section on proverbs in old Tagalog and comes with a sheet of music on the back that gives the music and words of “Comintang de la Conquista.” I browsed and marveled at the detail in his observations and realized that people then were travelers, not tourists.

Old books and artifacts are difficult to maintain. In the past decade, I have been content to use photocopies of books and manuscripts for work. But every now and then, the romance of a real book returns and makes research a joy rather than a chore.

Copyright 2008 Philippine Daily Inquirer. All rights reserved.

More Titsers

More ‘titsers’
There's The Rub column item by Conrado de Quiros
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 01:32:00 02/05/2008

After writing that column on teachers last week, I tried to recall some of the movies I’d seen that had to do with teachers and teaching. I was astonished to be able to list down quite a number of them.

I’ve always been in awe of teachers, and hold their profession in the highest regard. I never thought to become one simply because I realized early on that the profession did not just entail knowledge or learning, it entailed some degree of oratorical skill and/or theatrical flair. I can churn out a speech as well as the best of them (I don’t mind being immodest in that respect) but, as I said in the preface to “Tongues on Fire,” I’ve never been able to do justice to it by my delivery (I wish I could be equally immodest in that respect, too, but reality knocks too loudly on my door). As to theatrical skill, well, I had Rolando Tinio for a teacher, which is why I know that teaching at its best requires that, too. He was an awesome teacher, quite apart from being an awesome artist, combining learning, oratorical prowess and dramatic flair. And, man, did he inspire.

But to go back: You want the country’s best and brightest to consider teaching as a profession, or vocation, you’ve got to inspire them. It’s the appeal to idealism, or more precisely (and perversely), the poetry of near-certain impoverishment, that’s more likely to do the trick than the promise of untold riches and fame. And one of the best ways to inspire is to show them movies about teachers and teaching. The ones below are some of my favorites:

“The Blackboard Jungle” / “To Sir with Love.” I saw “To Sir With Love” (1967) first, while in high school, though “The Blackboard Jungle” came much earlier (1955). I’ve put them together because they have a lot of things in common. One is that they both produced smash hits. Lulu’s song of the same title went to top the charts while Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” helped spawn the monster called “rock and roll.” Two, both movies deal with a teacher who confronted juvenile delinquents in an inner city school. Specifically, both movies deal with a teacher who is terrorized by one exceptionally anti-social thug, whose conversion becomes the key to salvation of the entire class. And three, both movies have Sidney Poitier in them -- in “To Sir With Love” as the teacher, in the “Blackboard Jungle” as the thug. The first is the more hugely popular, but I’ve always liked the second better.

“Goodbye Mr. Chips.” I haven’t seen the 1939 version; I’ve seen the 1969 one. You can always read the book if you want. Like the movies above, the Peter O’Toole version also produced some smash hits, notably “Fill the World With Love.” The critics didn’t particularly like it, particularly in comparison with the Robert Donat version, but I saw it early in my college years and fell in love with it. The movie tells the story of a classics teacher who seemed to have become an irrelevancy over time, with a harsher, meaner, world coming in to take the place of a kinder, more peaceable one. The harshness and meanness particularly taking the form of World War I. In the end, he shows that he in fact is the most relevant person for those times. “We did teach them to be more polite to each other” (or words to that effect), he recollects with a friend in the twilight of his life. Ah, but if only the world had listened.

“Lean On Me,” “Stand and Deliver,” “Dangerous Minds,” “Freedom Writers.” Roughly the same theme, a teacher who rescues a bunch of black and Latino kids given up for lost by everyone, including themselves, from a future of misery and death and turns them into veritable achievers. “Dangerous Minds” I remember for Michelle Pfeiffer explaining Bob Dylan’s “Tambourine Man” to his class, specifically how Dylan, given the censorship in his time, had to disguise smoking pot with that magical metaphor. The most inspiring of the lot is “Stand and Deliver,” with Edward James Olmos as the math teacher of a rough East LA school who, despite the derision of his peers (“You can’t teach math to illiterates”), almost miraculously gets his kids to pass the AP Calculus Exam. His advice to his kids is something we can relate to, not least because he uses the same word for it: “gana.” You have to have gana, or enthusiasm.

“Dead Poets Society”; “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.” I suspect the first did a lot more to spark interest in poetry among the kids than a bunch of lectures on it. Certainly it made the phrase “carpe diem” (seize the day) the motto of a generation. The second is a much older movie, which thrust Maggie Smith into the limelight as a teacher in a conservative girls’ school in Edinburgh, Scotland, who demands from her students that they embrace the extraordinary life. Like “Dead Poets,” this is a far more complex movie than the others, and not the kind to get audiences off their seats to cheer. Like “Dead Poets,” it shows as well the tragedy as much as the glory of exploding truth and/or illusion in dangerous and/or impressionable minds.

“Mr. Holland’s Opus.” The one I like best as far as teaching goes, if not as movies go. Richard Dreyfuss is a composer who settles for a job teaching music in a small high school to pay the rent while he struggles to compose his masterpiece. He never gets to do the latter while he ends up doing the former for 35 years. In the end, frustrated and not a little bitter at having wasted his life, he attends one last school function before he goes. The function turns out to be a surprise party for him by all the students he had taught and whose lives he had changed forever. Not unlike James Stewart in “It’s A Wonderful Life.” That is Mr. Holland’s masterpiece, that is his magnum opus.

You don’t get inspired by all this, you deserve to be a politician.

Copyright 2008 Philippine Daily Inquirer. All rights reserved.


There's The Rub column item by Conrado de Quiros
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 22:48:00 01/29/2008

MANILA, Philippines -- On the few but happy occasions that I see my elementary and high school classmates, who are often one and the same, talk drifts to the pranks we mounted on our hapless teachers and how the same teachers dealt with those who were caught in the act. We remembered those teachers well -- to a man, woman, or priest -- their foibles and their virtues, the names officially given to them by their parents and the names we secretly gave them for some characteristic or other. Most of them we recalled with fondness, especially the ones who, quite apart from the terror they filled our hearts with, also filled our minds with the light of learning.

I don’t know if that is a generational thing or not, or indeed if it is a provincial thing or not. I do know that the teachers of my time and place were held in high regard by our community. In my street, there was a widow who taught preschool in her house and drew a not very small class to it. It also subbed as some sort of day-care center. She lived to a ripe old age (she was already advanced in years when I was in elementary school) devoting pretty nearly all her life to her calling. People said she renewed her marriage vows only with her work after her husband died. When she died, poor if not entirely penniless, it wasn’t just our street that turned up at the wake and plunged into deep mourning.

I remembered these things in light of the project of the Philippine Business for Education (PBEd) called “1000 Teachers Program,” which aims to recruit the country’s best and brightest to become teachers. The project aims to restore the luster in teaching, changing the public’s perception from “titser lang” to “titser ko, idol ko.” “In reality,” PBEd says, “teachers are not just teachers. They are classroom managers. They are chief operating officers of cramped classrooms with some of the most rowdy and academically challenged students.”

It’s a laudable project, and I’m all for it. First off though, Jesli Lapuz is right: the first thing you need to do to improve the lot of teachers, never mind their image, is to give them better pay. I’ve said it repeatedly: Every time I hear talk about raising the pay of soldiers (which gets to be rife when they get to be restive) because they’re risking life and limb to protect the country and receiving crumbs for their pains, I think of the teachers. Soldiers risk life and limb to protect the country’s body, teachers risk life and limb to protect this country’s mind. Which do you think is more important?

As to scale of impoverishment, I recall that the Association of Concerned Teachers once used to call public school teachers “the new national animal,” having replaced the carabao for that dubious honor. No profession is more grossly overworked and underpaid. Which is why public schools often resemble a tiangge, the teachers supplementing their income by selling tocino and bra payable in four “gives.” But which is better than soldiers supplementing their income by enforcing drug and gambling activities and robbing banks.

But raising pay alone won’t make them better teachers, or draw better entrants to the fold, any more than raising reporters’ pay will make them less prone to corruption, or draw better-quality recruits. The only way really that you can do that is by appealing to idealism, particularly youthful idealism in the case of prospective recruits. That is not as unrealistic or unreasonable as it sounds. The best and brightest of my generation were drawn to activism like moth to flame or like knight to lonely quest on the strength of it, on the heroic notion of changing the country, if not the world, even if one had to give up one’s life for it.

There’s no lack of encouragement from the movies for such a choice in life. Only recently I saw a powerful one in the form of “Freedom Writers,” which tells of a young teacher’s miraculous feat of turning a “hopeless” group of kids mired in a culture of death and violence into achieving students. There’s a lot more where that came from.

You do need to change the environment, too, to make that choice an attractive one. The appeal of activism in my time also rested to a great extent on the public acceptance, if a violently grudging one by parents (something I can appreciate only now as a parent), of activism as a noble, if quixotic, calling. Teaching isn’t greatly admired these days, publicly or privately.

That isn’t helped by sayings, though quite witty ones, like, “People who can’t do, teach.” As horrendous, and foolish, a belief as you can find, many teachers also being great doers. In any case, I don’t know that Alexander, who did, would ever surpass -- or even come close to -- Aristotle, who taught. It’s not helped either by songs like Juan de la Cruz’s “Titser: Public Enemy Number 1” or Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” ("We don’t need no education”) at least where they are taken out of context. For all its seeming anarchy though, “Titser” is just being playful, not cruel.

Certainly, it is not helped by lauding teachers as the CEOs of schools. That is not a promotion, that is a demotion. I recall my teachers with the greatest fondness not because they managed to discipline me but because they managed to inspire me, not because they managed to put order into my life but because they managed to drive me to quest restlessly for knowledge. At their best, teachers rank among the most creative of them all, among poets, artists, and philosophers. At their best teachers produce the greatest masterpieces of all, their canvasses being young minds, vast as the universe itself, their opuses, as “Mr. Holland’s Opus” shows, being the army of students sparked with the love of learning.

At their best, teachers don’t just teach, they do.

Animating Philippine Literature

Animating Philippine literature

PENMAN column item by Butch Dalisay

Monday, February 04 2008 (www.philstar.com)

I was in Singapore last week with poet Vim Nadera and publisher Karina Bolasco for a British Council-sponsored seminar on “Animating Literature: Bringing Texts to Life.” I like to think of myself as a pretty capable teacher of literature and language, but listening to the presentations of teaching experts like Prof. John Corbett of the University of Glasgow reminded me just how much there remains to be learned, and what an inexhaustible wonder literature is. Facing deadlines for other writing assignments having more to do with politics and economics, and still grappling with revisions to my own second novel, I remembered what I was a teacher of literature for, and why students everywhere could benefit from bringing literature into their lives, with a little help from their mentors.

I was asked to make a presentation on animating literature in the Philippines — an overview of what we’ve been doing to get literature off the printed page — and here, for posterity, are highlights of what we shared with our colleagues from Asia and the UK.

* * *

There has always been something vital and interesting going on in Philippine literature, and much of it has taken place off the printed page. The problem emerges when we look at the sales of books — especially those of the kind that we want our students to read and make for good paper topics: in other words, the kind of literature you and I write and patronize. As a recent study by Prof. Patricia May Jurilla notes, “the readership of Filipino literary books is not at all very wide. It is usually limited to a small circle that includes authors themselves indeed but also academics, critics, teachers, and students.” Editions are very small, at a standard 1,000 copies for a print run — in a country of 90 million people, most of whom are at least nominally literate, many in English and/or Filipino. Sales are slow, taking at least two years for 1,000 copies to sell out.

There are many reasons for this, but the most basic one is, not surprisingly, economic. A typical paperback novel can cost most Filipinos a day’s wages. Another obstacle is language, and a third, I think, is simply material. By that I mean that most of our writers aren’t writing what most people want to read.

While highbrow literary publishing may have relatively languished, we have had a vigorous and profitable popular literature in comic books, romance novels, radio and TV dramas, and, of course, movies.

This isn’t to say that Philippine literary publishing has had very little success. As my colleague Ms. Karina Bolasco here — who manages our largest literary publishing house — will tell you, there has been no shortage of new, talented authors seeking to get published every year. Many of these writers come from the annual literary workshops that we have been holding since the early 1960s and from the many creative writing degree programs now in place in Philippine universities, from the bachelor’s to the doctoral level.

In strictly financial or professional terms, the future might not be too bright for these people. But instead of dwelling on our failures and shortcomings — which will be familiar to every developing country and yet-modernizing society — I’d like to focus today on things we’ve done, done well, and done right in the Philippines to promote literature. I’ll then try to distill some useful lessons we’ve learned, toward a kind of best-practices list that we can all contribute to.

For example, for six years now, the National Book Development Board — a government agency with a self-explanatory name — has run a program called “Booklatan sa Bayan” that promotes readership in far=flung and underserved regions by holding seminars on the establishment and administration of libraries and reading centers, storytelling training, and a workshop for reading trainors. This program has been supported by major corporations as part of their own CSR programs. The NBDB also sponsors National Book Month in June (since moved to November), and last year’s highly successful celebration — devoted to the theme of “The Literary Imagination and the City We Live In” — included fully-booked bus tours of literary Manila, on which students could visit sites memorialized by Filipino authors in their works.

NGOs and private foundations have also been engaged in readership development. The Philippine Board of Books for Young People gives out much-awaited annual awards for the best new books for children — to authors and illustrators alike. The Sa Aklat Sisikat Foundation seeks out sponsors to promote reading and teacher training in public schools. Major Philippine corporations such as HSBC, Petron, and Jollibee have been behind SAS, which has reached over 100,000 students and 3,000 teachers in 500 public schools over the past six years.

Read or Die (www.read-or-die.org) is a group of young bookworms who also pronote reading and literature in the Philippines. Last August, it launched what it calls its Propaganda guided reading program at a suburban high school, under which 46 students read a book for two hours every week under the guidance of a Read Or Die facilitator, capped by a visit from and a conversation with the book author. Read Or Die also organizes the Write Or Die series with Filipino authors meeting with their readers in local bookstores.

Private publishers and booksellers have done much to raise the public profile of literature. Riding on the vast network of its parent company, National Book Store, our biggest and most prestigious literary publisher, Anvil Publishing, has always been supportive of Filipino authors, and has sought ways to connect them with their audiences. Last October, Anvil cooperated with the British Council to bring reading expert Dr. Alan Pulverness to Manila to speak to hundreds of Filipino teachers and to meet with leading Filipino authors. A new bookstore chain, Fully Booked, has brought no less than Neil Gaiman over not once but twice, drawing huge crowds on both visits.

This brings me to the emergence and the growing popularity of new kinds of literature in the Philippines — genre fiction, speculative fiction, graphic or comic-book fiction, creative nonfiction, chick lit, performance poetry — all of which offer writers, especially new and young ones, some alternatives to mainstream realism. These genres don’t lack for enthusiastic supporters who will go out of their way to promote their favored schools of writing. One young entrepreneur, Kenneth Yu, took it upon himself to publish the slim but groundbreaking Philippine Genre Stories, now on its fourth issue. A prizewinning novelist, Dean Alfar, leads a group of young writers called Lit Critters, who meet regularly to discuss both local and foreign stories that might help them in their own work. Both Kenneth and Dean have extensive online networks. (And here, the formula seems to be alternative + young + Internet + network.)

We already have several major, high-traffic websites and portals devoted to Philippine literature, among them panitikan.com.ph, which has scored over three million hits since it began almost two years ago. We have been able to secure some government funding for this portal, which is regularly updated and acts as a clearinghouse for nearly everything related to Philippine literature.

A work titled Ang Kagilagilalas na Pakikipagsapalaran ni Zsazsa Zaturnnah (The Amazing Adventures of Zsazsa Zaturnnah) deserves special mention, because of its runaway success in several versions — first, as a comic book by the artist Carlo Vergara in 2002, then a stage musical in 2006, and finally as a movie in 2006. Before the musical even opened, all 16 shows had been sold out — an unprecedented feat in Philippine theater. All three versions — comic book, musical, and movie—won critical acclaim. The lesson here? Update and adapt material for new times, themes, and audiences.

Zsazsa Zaturnnah is also unusual in that it was one of the relatively few cases where a work that had succeeded in print moved on to the stage and then to the movies. Very few Filipino stories, novels, or plays ever make it to the movies, with the occasional exception of popular novels serialized in the komiks magazines. An incipient independent film industry has emerged, with many young talents drawn from art, literature, and music, but its market, as yet, remains severely limited.

The situation in poetry is more encouraging — maybe because it involves little money and makes even less. In other words, when something has very little commercial value, people focus on making art, and do very well. Filipino poets might never achieve the same iconic status they enjoy in, say, Russia or Indonesia, but they’re carving out a space of their own, at least in the urban consciousness.

A group of mostly young Manila poets, headlined by a few of their hardy seniors, holds what the organizers call “Happy Mondays” poetry readings at Mag:Net, an art-gallery-cum-café near three major universities every Monday. Around 10 well-known and also new poets take to the stage at these readings (which an incompatibility with cigarette smoke unhappily prevents me from attending), followed by an open mike, and punctuated by rock music. On Tuesdays, the scene moves to the Conspiracy Café, a 15-minute drive away. Events like this are replicated outside Manila — in Baguio, Cebu, and Davao — where local artists and poets’ groups take the lead. They’ve been very successful, largely because it’s the young people doing the organizing. While their elders go to seminars and festivals to read papers and sign books, these young poets have the energy and enthusiasm to make things happen from week to week.

What’s truly interesting is how poetry and other literary forms have merged with the other arts in the Philippine literary scene. In January 2006, the Philippine Literary Arts Council — the country’s premier organization of writers in English — spearheaded a very special art exhibit titled “Chromatext Reloaded” at the Cultural Center of the Philippines Main Gallery. Poet and retired advertising man Marne Kilates has opened a website he calls “Poets’ Picturebook” at http://marnescripts.blogspot.com, where the featured poets write poems based on paintings, photographs, or other artworks of their choice.

The lesson here, finally, seems to be that for literary forms to survive, they have to be willing and able to mutate, and if necessary, to merge. This way they break new ground and reach or even create new audiences.

* * *

Copyright 2007. Philstar Global Corp. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Reading for Reading's Sake

Reading for Reading’s Sake

by Butch Dalisay
Penman column item in Philippine Star July 23, 2007

I was invited by the Philippine Board on Books for Young People to speak at last week’s celebration of the 24th National Children’s Book Day, and with so many people in that organization who’ve been my friends, colleagues, and former students, I couldn’t possibly say no. As I realized only when I arrived at the CCP, this year’s theme was “Basa Tayo, ‘Tay!”—a timely exhortation for fathers to read books to their children—and it turned out that the PBBY and I had the same thing in mind. Herewith, some excerpts from that talk:

I WRITE and edit books and I live and work in a world of books. As you can imagine, I have stacks and stacks of them at home, in the office, in boxes and closets I’ve forgotten about or haven’t opened in years.

But in truth, I read proportionately much more as a child than I do now as an adult. There were periods in grade school when, as a certified bookworm, I read three or four books a week, all of them borrowed from the school library and the provincial library close to where we lived.

The reason was simple: there was little else I could do. As I have recounted many times, I went to a school for privileged Filipinos—my parents scrimped and saved to send me there—but we had very little money, so the only amusement I could devote myself to was reading. And whatever else I may say or think about the distortions sometimes created by education in sectarian private schools, one tremendous advantage and resource they offer the young mind is a well-stocked library, in support of a strong language program.

For many wonderful years, I plunged into that library—this was La Salle Green Hills in the early ‘60s—and plundered it for all the Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, and Edgar Rice Burroughs Martian adventures I could get my hands on. And, when I ran out of all the boy’s books, I grudgingly and surreptitiously began to read Nancy Drew.

I was probably around ten when I bought my very first book. It was James Fenimore Cooper’s The Prairie, and it came in a so-called Ladder paperback edition whose vocabulary had been especially re-edited to match the level of one’s knowledge of English. It cost me 50 centavos, which was probably more than my daily baon, but I began to appreciate the fact that to borrow books was a wonderful convenience, but to own one was a princely privilege, a sign that you not only valued books for what they contained, but also for their physical selves. They were things, yes, but they were no less valuable than transistor radios, watches, toy guns, dolls, and whatever else you had. You could give them away. You could collect and hoard them. You could make someone miserable by not giving him or her a certain book.

What truly opened my mind were the books of history, biography, geography, and science that were available to me. My favorite class was Social Studies, and the textbooks alone could not satisfy my yearning to learn about faraway places and ancient cultures. I went through the biographies of people both famous and obscure—true, most of them were dead white people—and I pored over maps and remembered exotic place-names that I swore I would visit someday. Given our finances then, there seemed to be no way I would ever visit China, Europe, Africa, or even the United States. But the books transported me to those places, even to the moon and Mars, using only the conveyance of words and images.

At home, there was always something to read, even if they happened to be just back issues of TIME, Newsweek, the Reader's Digest, National Geographic, and Liwayway. At a very young age I became aware of and interested in politics and current affairs, as well as in science and technology. To me, nonfiction was just as if not even more interesting than fiction, and perhaps my predisposition toward realism in my own fiction reflects that bias for the tangible but infinitely complex world.

With high school and college came other concerns and priorities. In high school, ever eager to get beyond my years, I discovered adult literature—and by adult I mean everything from James Bond to Playboy and Fanny Hill. In college, reading became increasingly something I had to do, rather than wanted to do. What I had done for fun became more of a chore and a labor. And perhaps to bring back some private joy into that process, I began writing my own books—in agreement with Toni Morrison’s famous remark that “I wrote my first book because I wanted to read it.”

Graduate school was a strange mixture of books I loved and loathed. I loved Shakespeare and his contemporaries in English drama; I admired much of the contemporary fiction I came across. I loathed the books on theory and criticism I had to read to get my degree, but which seemed to be written in a purposely painful English.

It has been a long time since I have read a nice, satisfying book. I simply no longer have the time. The last one I read, a year ago, was titled Objects of Desire, and it had to do with an exciting chase—for antique American furniture. Today I mostly read student papers and student stories, and once in a while I come across a piece that revives my faith in the power of words, but more often I find myself pining for the simple pleasures of reading, in grade school, about electromagnetism and white whales and nebulae.

I have given you this walkthrough of my reading history to make a few points, even if only to reaffirm some things you may already know and believe.

First, reading at a young age is tremendously important in shaping the mature person. Those books I devoured in grade school laid the foundation for my thinking and writing. I became aware that the world was much larger than my own. I developed an abiding interest in science and the scientific method. I felt inspired by the biographies of people who underwent great trials and hardships before they succeeded, and even after. Books on geography and history burned in me the desire to go to far places and see new and wonderful things.

Second, reading is still the best way of learning a language. Reading is language in action—often in the best possible ways. Reading taught me not only words but how they worked in sentences and paragraphs. Just knowing how words literally looked on the page helped me become an editor as well—a skill that requires almost letter-perfect command of spelling and grammar. Reading a wide variety of material showed me how language behaved in different situations for different purposes—from love letters to laboratory reports. I developed personal standards that later helped me in my work as a writer of fiction and as an occasional journalist—starting by shamelessly aping the styles of writers I admired, such as John Updike, W. Somerset Maugham, and Graham Greene.

Third, reading begins and should be sustained at home. Parents can’t leave reading to teachers and expect their children to be imbued with a lifelong love of books if they don’t actively encourage reading at home. They can do this by reading themselves—and showing their children what an important and enjoyable thing it is to do—and reading with and to their children, which makes for excellent family time and enduring memories. I can still remember my father putting me to bed with a story—usually something from the Reader’s Digest—making sure to leave something for the next day. I looked forward to those moments, and when Beng and I had our own child I made sure to read to her as well. (That's me and Demi up there, circa 1977.)

Fourth, knowing that few of our schools have the kind of library I was fortunate to grow up with, the government should strengthen school and public libraries—with books, CDs, and Internet access and multimedia resources. Much of my self-education after school took place at the Rizal Provincial Library in Pasig, where I tried to learn a new word every visit, randomly flipping the big Webster’s dictionary and picking a word I didn’t know.

Fifth, we should encourage young people to read as a national priority and a nationwide initiative, but also as something cool and fun to do, providing all the best prizes and incentives for young people who value and read good books. We should have more reading contests and tests such as those topped recently by the grade schools of Marikina and Las Piñas—rather than more singing and dancing contests, or those that depend on sheer luck.

Sixth, the best reason to read is for reading’s own sake. Reading is more than making sense of words on a page. It is the best form of exercise for the imagination—an invigorating experience that keeps the mind supple and poised to work harder and more creatively on concrete tasks. Those tasks could include business decisions, engineering problems, or creative writing itself.

Lastly, allow me to say a few things about the writing of books for young people rather than their reading.

Write books and stories that matter—stories that make the complex experience of being Filipino not only understandable to young readers but an inescapable civic and personal obligation. In other words, write books that will help young readers become better Filipinos. I feel that we need this badly at a time when many young Filipinos—and their parents—can’t wait to escape, to run off to a job in New York or Singapore right after graduation.

I’m not making the simplistic suggestion that we should all stay home and say no to good opportunities abroad; I do mean that wherever we are in the world, we should be aware and mindful of our Filipino-ness, and of how we can contribute to the growth of our society and nation, not just to our family and personal income.

For this we need more books for young people in both English and Filipino and even in our regional languages that engage, in appropriate ways, our present realities, but also offer strength and hope—and, yes, are interesting and fun to read.