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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.

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