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Why the National Book Awards matter

At the storied National Museum this evening, the Manila Critics Circle (MCC) headed by Ruel S. de Vera and the National Book Development Board (NBDB) will be recognizing the best books in various categories in both the Literary and Non-Literary divisions, all considered the most outstanding published titles in 2017. This is the 37th year that the MCC has been performing this heroic—but absolutely delightful—task of selecting the best titles deemed worthy of the National Book Award (NBA). This is also the 10th year of the MCC-NBDB partnership, to ensure the perpetuity of this important recognition that enriches Philippine cultural and literary life.

Today’s event is a gala production, because the NBA is quite exceptional. It does not only bestow prestige on the author and the printed text; it also gives due recognition to all the individuals, the hidden figures involved in the largely unknown and seemingly mysterious and magical process of book publishing and production.

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How else to describe the process of capturing one’s  ideas into words and images and the tangible form of a book to delight the reader? Thus, also to be recognized are the publisher, the editor, the cover and the book designer, the illustrator, the editor, the translator, the proofreader, the printer, among many others. It is an indication of the wealth of Philippine talent, not yet fully acknowledged even among us, let alone beyond our boundaries.

Despite the threat in recent years of the digital screen rendering the physical book obsolete,  the physical book has survived and reasserted itself. For us in the publishing sector, it almost seems like a Sisyphean task to have to regularly defend our presence as an industry and why we carry on with awards such as these. It is a deliberate decision that we celebrate books with pomp and circumstance in a country that seems to be more receptive to other forms of media.

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Today’s  event is a manifestation of our belief that books are arbiters of culture that nourish the mind and spirit of the Filipino. It is a testimony to how we uphold free speech and thought, by championing the creation of books and the kind of literature that promotes a diversity of Filipino voices.

These awards are meant to invite and encourage authors, illustrators, publishers and other industry professionals to continue to create more and more excellent books in greater numbers.

And what a fulsome year 2017 has been in book publishing. The roster of literary and non-literary titles nominated this year includes books that are not only for the highbrow and the academic, but also works touching on different cultural aspects, more graphic literature, and more books on humor and sports. The increased volume of book titles has not made it any easier to choose which titles to honor—a happy problem that we welcome with open arms. I have said time and again that the best aspect of being associated with the NBDB is the mandatory familiarity with who’s writing what in the country.  A dream task for a bibliophile.

Consider these books as page-stoppers, rather than page-turners, to borrow the phrase from an article on “The Bookish Life: How to Read and Why” by Joseph Epstein, just published this month. A page-stopper, he says, “causes me to stop and contemplate a striking idea, an elegant phrase, an admirably constructed sentence.” He also writes: “… reading the right books, the best books, puts us in the company of men and women more intelligent than ourselves.”

The MCC and the NBDB are encouraged by the growing support of individuals who likewise believe in the importance of books and the authors who write them. They have boosted the cash awards for specific categories. Thank you to Gerardo Cabochan,  Elfren S. Cruz, John C. Kaw, Victorio C. Valledor, The Philippine Literary Arts Council, the estates of Cirilo Bautista, Alfonso T. Ongpin, Pablo A. Tan. May many others follow suit.

And, of course, acknowledgment is in order for NBDB’s hidden figures who ensure that the NBA flows smoothly for everyone: executive director Jerry G. Tizon, director Beng Reyes, Debbie Nieto and  Niña Lanciola.

Neni Sta. Romana Cruz (nenisrcruz@ gmail.com) is chair of the National Book Development Board and a member of the Eggie Apostol Foundation.

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TAGS: books, column, education, MCC, National Museum, opinion
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