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Special World Book Day

/ 12:24 AM April 22, 2016

This year’s April 23 is a special World Book Day because it commemorates the 400th death anniversary of two of the world’s best and, maybe, most famous writers: William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes.

My column will be three short pieces in one. First I’ll talk a bit about Shakespeare and Cervantes. Then I’ll go into the importance of World Book Day to the Philippines, and close with an appeal to help make this year’s World Book Day more meaningful.

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About Shakespeare and Cervantes, there have been many attempts to compare the two since they were contemporaries. Of course, Shakespeare comes out looking like the winner because he was so prolific, with 37 plays and 154 sonnets in all to his name.

Then there are the number of translations of Shakespeare—some 100 languages, according to an article in The Guardian. That includes Filipino versions; more importantly, several of them have been staged.

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Shakespeare seems particularly popular in Asia where his plays are frequently adapted, crossing borders in time and place. Dulaang UP recently staged one such adaptation of “King Lear,” which, it turns out, seems to have a particular appeal to Asians; one particularly spectacular version was staged in Melbourne with actors from several Asian countries speaking their parts in Chinese, Bahasa Indonesia and Japanese.

These adaptations, including those for the cinema, are a testament to Shakespeare’s being able to capture themes that are timeless and universal, in countless enigmatic, even paradoxical ways.

Cervantes produced much less than Shakespeare, but his “Don Quixote” is considered the first modern European

novel. The narrative’s theme of lofty idealism is universal, too, so much so that in English we now have words like “quixotic” (which means to be unrealistic and impractical) and “chasing windmills,” referring to some people’s pursuit of a daunting personal cause, which is seen by many as futile, yet is respected because it is so unrelenting.

The Spaniards claim “Don Quixote” has been translated into some 140 languages; I did check for but could not find a Filipino translation. Alas, Cervantes’ great novel is perhaps much too long to read, and the number of people who have read it cover to cover is probably going to dwindle even more in this age of SMS (short message service), Twitter and Facebook postings. How many of us rush through the day with fast reads over fast food?

A quick aside: There are actually two dates marked World Book Day. The British have another World Book Day on March 3 and, strangely, call April 23 World Book Night, which as you might imagine will be celebrated with extra enthusiasm this year. How, you might ask, do you celebrate World Book Night? Well, they’ll have Shakespeare readings in that grand institution that is the British Library, which presumably will stay open through the night. So if you’re in London this Saturday, do drop by.

Books and Filipinos

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Seriously, I wouldn’t mind having big World Book Day and World Book Night celebrations. We need to do much more to promote books. I’m elated seeing our book fairs packed with people, but I worry, too when my kids beg to go to National Bookstore or Powerbooks only to end up buying everything except books.

I despair too when I get into planes, seeing non-Filipinos struggling to get on board with bags full of books while the Filipinos stagger in with loads of duty-free liquor and cigarettes.  Sure, maybe the Filipinos, like myself, have the books on Kindle or an iPad, but when I go around the cabin I rarely see my   kababayan  reading books or, for that matter, reading anything.

The disdain for books is certainly not limited to the Philippines. All over the world, there’s ambivalence about books.  Just think of the connotations of words like “bookworm” and “bookish,” suggesting that people who read are too detached from the world, impractical and idealistic like Don Quixote.

Even the philosopher Socrates had reservations about writing (which he said would erode memory) and reading (which would lead to students thinking they have knowledge). Dictators—secular, political, religious—were more fearful of the printed word as giving people dangerous ideas.  Just look at how books were censored, even burned.

But the neglect of books and reading is serious in the Philippines, and made even more tragic when you think about how we are a democracy, which means we almost have unlimited access to books. Our problem lies with the environments we have, at home and in school, where the libraries are limited, and where books are associated with assignments that are difficult or boring, or both.

Books open new horizons, make us imagine new horizons, dare us to think, to create. The rather dismal choices we have in this year’s elections are due, in part, to our inability to see beyond our archipelago, even with millions of Filipinos living overseas (and who, working hard all day, have little time for books or, if they do, would have other budgetary priorities).

Books create civility, and congeniality.  I love the way we Filipinos are so good at quoting lines from movies, but wouldn’t it be even better if we could quote from literature, our own or the world’s?

The battles to promote book appreciation have to be fought at home, in schools and in communities. Just providing books of substance is a first step—emphasis on substance. I worry that when there are calls for book donations, people send in pulp romances.

The Inquirer’s book reading program has gone a long way to getting children interested in reading, as with Loida Nicolas Lewis’ providing books and newspapers to towns in Sorsogon.  I was so thrilled reading about how Donsol now gets so many newspapers; when I was there more than a decade ago with anthropology field school students, I would rush to the town center’s one and only newsstand every morning, fearful it would run out of its only two copies of each daily newspaper.

Books are another matter, still too expensive for many Filipinos. But outlets like Books for Less have gone a long way toward creating more book-friendly homes.

I did want to make book appeals for two specific groups. The first would be for UP and UE faculty affected by recent fires. Books are the lifelines of faculty members, and the loss of their private libraries was devastating.  Fortunately, Anvil and the university presses of Ateneo de Manila, De La Salle and the University of Santo Tomas have teamed up for a Sagip Guro project that offers books at great discounts for faculty members affected by the fires. You can also buy books from them with specific instructions on what or which institution or department you want the book for. Google Sagip Guro for details.

The other pitch I want to make is for a group that purchases Filipino children’s books for public schools, day-care centers and other groups. This was set up by the family of Ma. Theresa Ujano Batangan, a much loved UP faculty member who passed away last year. Call or text Dr. Dennis Batangan (0917-5045272) if you want to help.  I’ve been helping them with their campaign with a request to allocate books for the lumad (indigenous people in Mindanao) communities in evacuation centers. I visited one such center in Davao and was touched by how, amid the difficult conditions, the children have been able to continue studying, but struggling with very few books.

Let’s make a difference with this year’s World Book Day.

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TAGS: books, Miguel de Cervantes, Reading, William Shakespeare, World Book Day
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