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Books are essential

In the midst of the current health crisis, with many households experiencing tumultuous disruptions in their everyday lives, worrying about lost income and keeping a family in more than survival mode, is it appropriate to talk about books as a basic essential need?

More than ever in these difficult times, books are there to turn to. Even without bringing up bibliotherapy—using books to help in emotional and psychological disorders—books provide a special kind of refuge and much solace as one is transported to other worlds, allowing one to live other lives. One cannot experience a book, whether a textbook or one for leisure reading, without it influencing you in some way.

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No, my head is not in the clouds, and I am aware of the reality of the absence of books in the homes of the less privileged or even in those of the affluent who feel technology and devices will suffice. Sadly, public libraries are not open yet—and pardon my old refrain, where are they, anyway? I mean a true public library where one can spend hours reading the day’s papers or researching or working on one’s assignments and feeling very welcome to linger and explore and learn and satisfy one’s curiosity.

It is not true that Filipinos do not read. Just look at the mob at the Manila International Book Fair, so filled to capacity the entrances had to be shut to limit the visitors; or the regulars at Booksale, everyone’s favorite bargain store; or the Big Bad Wolf sales. Or, perhaps the Quezon City Public Library when I last visited two years ago?

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Access to books is the biggest obstacle to our lamentable state of literacy and readership. No need for statistics—just look at how we fared at the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 2018. It was our first brave attempt to participate in this triennial test to check on how we fare in terms of global standards. In math, science, and reading, the Philippines’ 15-year-olds consistently scored below the average of most participating countries. We ranked at the bottom in the test group of 77 countries. The OECD report on the Philippines notes, “Over 80% of students in the Philippines did not reach a minimum level of proficiency in reading…”

Clearly, the key lies in books and reading. How can books be made available to our 23 million public school students who do not have school libraries to frequent? That was a rude awakening for me in my teacher training years with the Sa Aklat Sisikat Foundation. What a catchy slogan, that books make you cool—but how to promote the love of reading in Grade 4 students when they did not have books in their hands?

Most schools do not have the space or the books or the staff to run a library. In one Quezon City school where I did a reading-writing session, the staff and students were interested readers and had their Reading Corner in the hallway beneath a staircase, with a box of donated books and obsolete materials from the United States.

That is why during these times, it is happy news that online reading materials and storytelling sessions are available for young readers. The Philippine Educational Theater Association (Peta) has begun Storytelling Sundays on Facebook, beginning with two stories of the late outstanding writer Rene O. Villanueva. It has Peta’s known brand of professionalism and creativity. How the books have come alive with words, songs, and drama! Again, however, we know that online opportunities are not within reach for all—a situation recognized even in a rich country like the United States, which worries about the reach of Zoom classes.

Whatever the circumstances, it behooves us to lead our students to discover and rediscover the many joys of reading.

Erratum in last week’s column: Because of her litany of titles, I made a big faux pas. Sr. Mary John Mananzan, OSB, is currently the vice president for external affairs of St. Scholastica’s College and the superior of the Manila Community. The college president is Sr. Christine Pinto, OSB. My apologies.

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TAGS: books, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Programme for International Student Assessment
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