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Learning to read

Once upon a time, a group of small schoolchildren found themselves staring mystified at a wooden door that was about to open. It was said that behind the door was a room of treasures, the kind that very few chosen pupils had ever laid hands on. Now, these particular children were finally going to have the privilege of entering this legendary room themselves. They stood anxiously as their teacher turned the key.

The door opened. The room was a library.

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This was how we were in our public elementary school, where the library was strangely off-limits to us pupils except when we had to clean it before guests and school supervisors arrived. I think the arrangement was mostly well-intentioned: The school had to protect the precious books from our dingy little hands because our library wasn’t at all well-stocked. This was also why library cleaners were specifically chosen, like an elite group plucked out of the Daily Sweepers chart.

But between those days of waiting to be a library cleaner and now, I gradually became convinced that had Filipino pupils been encouraged to actually read those locked-up books—instead of just having to dust them—we would be doing much better as a nation now.

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Don’t get the wrong impression. Library cleaner or no library cleaner, we all learned to read. Our teachers didn’t lack the persistence to guide even the slowest learners in our class through the whole passage of “Henny Penny.” Our textbooks always had reading comprehension tests at the end of every reading selection. We learned to sound words, then understand sentences, then follow entire stories.

We got stuck there, however. Our reading was all pragmatic: There was always a purpose to it. We read because we were required to; we read to know facts, to answer quizzes, to get the grade. When school was done for the day, it seemed that few of us read out of preference. Our relationship with books was purely practical.

Pragmatic reading is the kind of reading that many Filipinos have come to learn and carry into adulthood. We read the paper to know the news; we read the brochure to know the product. Other than that, we find very little reason to read. And in turn, reading gives us very little value beyond passing knowledge.

There is much, much more to reading than just arriving at a practical purpose.

For one, reading can be an excellent form of leisure. All it takes is a few paragraphs of a good book—which you read at your own choice, at your own pace—and you could be in for an enjoyable ride. Next thing you know, hours have passed.

What makes it excellent is that the whole time you are riding John Grisham’s rising action or falling for John Green’s characters, you are also acquiring a wider vocabulary, developing a keener sense for literature, and discovering your own preferences. No teacher had to require you to do these. Heck, you didn’t even require yourself to do these. You were simply having fun.

Leisurely reading indicates that you have gone past the mere basics taught in school, and have developed your own personal appreciation for reading itself.

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The question now is the kind of material you read. Just because you devour romance pocketbooks doesn’t mean you are exhausting the benefits of literature. (Yes, I did read Precious Hearts Romance every afternoon one sultry summer, the copies courtesy of our house help, Ate Gemma. All that reading did not help much in the following school year.)

The ideal material is the one that demands deep reading. Not just a string of practical facts or a roller-coaster plot, but a cache of well-placed details, techniques, and substance aimed to leave an impact on you. A novel to offer you a moral, a scientific article to make you think of implications, a short story to allow you to formulate your own hypotheses.

When such a material lands on your lap, there is no other way to read it but to read it deeply, carefully. To pay attention to its allusions and metaphors. To give it thought. To consider how it might reflect or apply to or change your life. This is the kind of reading that transforms “Henny Penny” readers into more analytical, more learned, and more empathetic persons. A number of studies in psychology indeed support this.

Picture a nation whose citizens are analytical, learned, and more attuned to the world. Picture, for instance, how those citizens might vote, lobby for laws, and act in their communities.

That’s the kind of nation we could have become had we been encouraged to read—and read deeply—right from a tender age. Instead, we had to share textbooks with one or two seat mates; we had to content ourselves with wishing for the interesting but expensive books we found in bookstores; we had to resign ourselves to closed libraries.

But things are looking up. In recent years, there seems to have been greater interest in literature among Philippine readers. And by “literature,” I don’t mean Wattpad fan-fiction. I mean works of authors such as Plato and Stephen Hawking and J. D. Salinger—all available and selling like hotcakes at used-books shops online. I’m talking more people getting copies of Sylvia Plath or Lualhati Bautista—and proudly posting on social media about these books.

A 2014 global study also found that Filipinos spent some 7.6 hours per week reading—ranking us fourth among 30 countries in terms of time spent reading.

It’s a worthy trend to keep up and adopt for good at a personal level. There’s a wealth of art, science, and emotional and mental stimulation available to anyone who reads. And for a nation of readers, the potential for growth can be huge. So closed libraries be damned, here’s hoping we keep learning to read, and read well.

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TAGS: books, library, Reading
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