Wednesday, June 29, 2005

The Reading Republic

So I was going through Gelay's journal when I came across her post about a guy's plaint on Filipino reading habits:

Speaking of novels, why is it that Filipinos have a narrow sense of reading preference? It seems that we're stucked in reading mass-produced novels and non-fictions like Mitch Albom's Five People You Will Meet In Heaven, or Tuesdays With Morrie where diabetic sweetness is the dictum of the day. Also, we tend to gravitate to spiritually uplifting materials be it a novel like Cuelho's The Alchemist or the non-fiction Chicken Soup for A Hooker's Soul. And if you ask anyone or any celebrity at that, their choices are the same albeit in varying degrees of sappiness and we the proletariat tend to lap it up.

Gelay later analyses the whys and wherefores, stating a number of pretty good reasons like the Filipinos' need for visual stimulation, time constraint, popularity, etc. while another reason cited was the expense of buying books. A livejournal community also made their opinions known on the same topic here as they defended their tastes, whether high-brow or low.

(A digression: a published author of Dark Cabal-- an anonymous group blog-- makes some discerning points about why popular books are popular here, which of course drew flak because, hey! he's defending The Da Vinci Code! *wry grin*)

With so many issues raised, it's sometimes confusing to gather one's thoughts to make declarations. But taking inflation into consideration, here's my two-pesos on the matter:

The way I figure it, it may be true that the Filipino reading public has narrow reading preferences. However, considering the number of bookshops that have currently sprouted throughout the metropolitan, I think that there's a sizable proportion of the reading population that have wider reading preferences. Before when one had to limit book-searches to National Bookstore, Goodwill, Powerbooks, La Solidaridad, and Booksale, now people can go to Fully-Booked, A Different Bookstore, Booktopia, Libris and Books for Less.

Of course, this proportion is in the minority-- despite the explosion of new branches of bookshops, there are casualties here and there, which means that the proportion is limited. Likewise, this doesn't answer the fact that a majority of the Filipino reading public still have narrow reading preferences.

Why do literate people venture not into other genres or lesser known titles such as Kazuo Ishiguro's Pulitzer prize-winning Remains of the Day? Why is it that the only novels that keep popping up in people's shelves are by Anne Rice, Dan Brown, Robert Ludlum, Mary Higgens Clark, Michael Crichton, Daniel Steele, etc. whereby though they are hugely popular, they have yet to earn a Pulitzer or any prize in the literary field? I don't demean them, but shouldn't we seek those works that were highly praised (and prized) by critics for their merits like those that have won the Palanca awards or the Pulitzer's? Why should we let ourselves stagnate in the pool of the mass-produced?

Gelay put it succinctly when she summarized the comments at the livejournal comunity, noting that (translated from Filipino): "Some ask where the fun is in reading if readers are dictated upon on what to read, while others act all elitist about it. Some say that this isn't being elitist but having a choice in what to read."

Personally, I think it's all about "blinders." Some people have preconceptions about reading, some have preconceptions about the books they read, and some just have preconceptions. My blind side, for example, tends to veer to the speculative such that I'm reluctant to explore mainstream reading. Are these reasons to limit their reading good or bad? That depends. As Cecelia Holland says in an interview:

People don't read for the right reasons, or they don't read well any more. If they're not immediately amused, they think you've done a bad job and they discard it. The serious reader reads in order to enter into worlds that he could not enter into otherwise, and expand himself and grow and find new parts of himself. That requires active reading, where you have to bring all these resources of memory, language, and organizational ability in your mind into the book and make the book yourself. The writer gives you a kit, and in your mind you make the book up.

But in the end though, it's really a matter of choice. As one commenter said:

It's about narrowness vs variety, not populism vs elitism. And frankly it puzzles me when I'm accused of elitism. But do I think variety is better than narrowness? Goddamn right I do.High Art and Low Art are useful fictions. In the end, there is only good art and bad art. Sometimes you'll find good art in fancy galleries, sometimes you'll find it in trashy paperbacks. But the odds of finding good art increase when you venture out beyond the fields you know.

Of course this raises hackles from some quarters. But despite suspicions that this means denigrating one's reading material, this is not about that. It's about reading: as long as Filipinos read, then there is still hope for the race.

Myself, you don't know how happy it makes me whenever I see someone else reading on the train while on the way to work or on the way back home.

(Okay, maybe not if it's The Purpose-Driven Life.)

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