Big bad book readers
Last week, like thousands of other excited millennials, I found myself at the Big Bad Wolf book sale at the World Trade Center in Pasay City. The organizers hailed it as the biggest book sale in Asia and I could believe it—with two million books and thousands of other patrons, I spent two hours in line at the cashier. It was even harder looking for books in a jungle of elbows, tripping on the trolleys that the organizers helpfully provided to the hoarders. All I could think at the time was, who says Filipinos aren’t readers?
I can remember a time when being a bookworm was much less fashionable, and more expensive. Powerbooks and Fully Booked weren’t yet the giants they are and I had to hoard my allowance to get my dweeby sci-fi and fantasy books ordered online for three times their original price. The same went for fan merchandise. Whatever my schoolmates may have thought about books and geekery, the markets certainly seemed to validate it: If I wanted to get books that were slightly off the mainstream, I would have to do it the hard way, or comb diligently through the stacks of the (admittedly underrated) book sales in malls.
It’s a stark contrast to how reading is encouraged, even fashionable, these days. Book-centric events are now an actual thing, as those of us who tried and failed to get into the 2017 Manila International Book Fair (MIBF) can attest to—the line on the weekend circled the building five times. The more upscale bookstores hold events and sales for their patrons a few times a year. Last year there was the seventh (seventh!) Filipino ReaderCon where writers, book lovers and bloggers gathered around their love of, and advocacy for, reading. Where were they when I was a preteen who couldn’t find Terry Pratchett on the shelves of National Bookstore?
Still, the hype around book sales and book-centric activities can only be a good thing. Jacqueline Ng of the Big Bad Wolf sale has said that their aim in bringing the sale here was to “inject some excitement” into the book industry and to get people to remember the joy of reading. Of course, a cynic might say that every Filipino loves a bargain, or that the social media hype is all about posting the books you bought but never reading them, but it only takes a little spark to nurture the love of reading; a culture that encourages it, even if only superficially, is a great thing in a country where literacy is a continuing challenge.
It’s heartening to see that we are not just reading, but also reading enthusiastically. Some have described the reading culture in Asian countries to be centered around academics, or “reading to pass,” with a heavy focus on English literacy and achievement. Neither of these is a bad thing but it’s leisure reading—reading for the joy of it—that one carries into adulthood, that shapes thoughts and ideas and sparks creativity, and the people standing in line for hours at the World Trade Center last week were certainly not reading to pass. The passion is real.
We’re still watching the reading culture of Filipinos as it matures, and hopefully it can develop into one that celebrates and popularizes its own authors. Wattpad books aside, most of our activities and discussions center around American and English authors, which is natural, but not ideal; even the Big Bad Wolf sale, of Malaysian roots, was unapologetically short of Asian authors. There’s also literacy in lower-income households—according to the National Statistics Office, the Philippines has maintained a high literacy rate in recent years, largely through the Department of Education’s efforts to bring children to school and maintain literacy programs, so the government clearly has a role and is playing it, but we can go beyond functional literacy. There’s no reason that, in the future, the Philippines shouldn’t be known as a nation of readers. It might be annoying to stand in line at events like the MIBF and big book sales, and sometimes we might long for the days when the energy in book events was quiet and cozy rather than frantic and competitive, but why complain? It’s a good symptom that the lines are there in the first place.