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Sec. Briones’ heart in the right place

This meeting on a Monday afternoon between the Department of Education and its attached agency, the National Book Development Board, had the expected agenda of budget and other bureaucratic concerns. What was pleasantly surprising was that, after business was briskly done, there ensued a leisurely conversation on books and reading, something not possible in the budget hearings in Congress where we would more often meet.

The venue was not at the DepEd’s Pasig central office but at Seameo Innotech, one of Secretary Leonor Briones’ alternative offices, depending on the day’s schedule of meetings. It is her way of coping with the city traffic, with the voluminous documents to be read and signed following her in convoy.

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A passionate booklover from childhood when at the age of 9 she started reading her school teacher-father’s  collection of books, including  Dumas’ “The Count of Monte Cristo,” Briones asked why I should be surprised that she would devote time, any time needed, for books and reading. A favorite is “Arabian Nights” in the original translation by Sir Richard Burton—not the actor, she hastened to add.

Briones is no Luddite, but does not favor reading on any other platform but the actual book in your hand. Audiobooks and even readalouds, popular as they are, are not good enough for her, for they cannot take the place of the physical experience of holding a book to read.

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She is proud of her artist-son Hoche Briones, who had a second one-man exhibit at the GSIS Auditorium last year.  Many of his works are on the hallway walls leading to the education secretary’s office. A digital artist in Singapore,  Hoche heeds his mother’s counsel: “You have to work to support your art.”

Of course, how could I forget the Manila International Book Fair in 2017, when Sec. Liling came at the last hour on the last day, but managed to buy a batch of paperbacks for her leisure reading—after visiting both floors of the fair.  Lamenting that she missed last year’s book fair, she tried to remember what kept her away. It must have been a politically correct event I had to attend, she said with a laugh.

Briones, who strongly espouses lifelong learning, is known to have advised students to “look beyond their class textbooks, their computers, and the four walls of their classrooms to discover the meaning of life.” She emphasizes that continuing learning experience beyond the schoolyears can only happen in reading.  Change is happening so fast, and the only way to catch up is through books.

She has likewise challenged students to bring at least one book, aside from textbooks, in their backpacks. That should keep them busy during waiting time and other idle moments.

On the abundance of donated books, Briones pointed out that, though such gestures are well-meaning, often the books contain dated material for students to truly benefit from.

The afternoon found her in an especially cheery mood, in Valentine red (“Yes, even at my age,” the young 79er said), and proud of a matching red handpainted bag from an artist from Dumaguete. When the conversation steered to literary festivals and book fairs beyond Metro Manila, her cherished Dumaguete hometown as a literary haven was uppermost in her mind. Her ties with Silliman University are strong and proud.

The secretary’s reading heart is in the right place. Were that her only legacy to her teachers and students, that would be breakthrough enough.

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The Big Bad Wolf Book Sale, conceptualized by Malaysia-based BookXcess founders Andrew Yap and Jacqueline Ng, returns to the World Trade Center on Feb. 22-March 4 after successful runs in Cebu and Davao. The Davao engagement is upon the invitation of Mayor Sara Duterte. In partnership with Gawad Kalinga, the 24-hour book sale offers 2 million books across various genres at 50-90 percent off. Admission is free! Come and read with us.

I like the concept of the sale—enticing readers who are not the usual book buyers and building up a corps of readers to enlarge our group of regular book buyers. And who’s to quarrel over an event that makes books accessible to all?

Neni Sta. Romana Cruz ([email protected] gmail.com) is chair of the National Book Development Board and a member of the Eggie Apostol Foundation.

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TAGS: Big Bad Wolf Book Sale, books, education, learning, Manila International Book Fair in 2017, Neni Sta. Romana Cruz, read, Reading, Secretary Leonor Briones
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