The unbearable rightness of reading
I was barely out of my toddler jammies when I first stumbled on humanity’s most dangerous gizmo: the spine-mangled book of essays by Michel de Montaigne, and the thin volume of Playboy’s Party Jokes with illustrations. They belonged to my father who mistakenly left them on the cupboard that was well within my reach with the help of a chair.
While sketches of fully naked women in translucent garter belts gripped my six-year-old attention span, the shapes of words gave my first eyewitness account of nudity a run for its money. I found the wall of words dazzling, the smell of old paper addictive, so much so that that I wanted more. At seven, I could read huge portions of children’s books and my own personal stash of fairy tales. Still, I hardly understood a word of Montaigne, and Playboy did well to bore me to sleep.
I was 14, thereabouts, when, by accident, I got hold of Thomas Paine’s works – Common Sense, The Rights of Man and The Age of Reason. I found the books stacked in a huge box containing my father’s penny Westerns. Immediately, curiosity got the better of me. I devoured all three books in three weeks, forgoing parties, social gatherings, even classes.
If there was ever a time that books had a grip on my young life, that was it. I began seeing the world for what it truly is, largely steeped in lies and cruelty. With the change in mental scenery came, too, the change in attitude. I began seeking the company of older bibliophiles to discuss rights, reason, resistance. It was Martial Law, and talks of such nature could land us all in jail or a shallow grave. Regardless of the perils, I persisted. I was well on my way to college when I grabbed hold of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, Emma Goldman’s Anarchism and Other Essays and Edgardo M. Reyes’ Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag.
Even in the middle of telling the most elaborate fantasies, the truth simply cannot remain hidden when read from a book.
Thanks to these books, I was able to reclaim my largely “uneducated” life – I was a college dropout – and made something of it: a writer and editor. Reading John Knox’s “Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God” took my chosen vocation a notch higher.
Books – that ingenious contraption of movable sheets of paper, made all the more spellbinding by the scent of vanilla, with rows and rows of oddly shaped figures called letters made of ink – have always been thought of as portals to another time, another world. For some, the stories offer the chance to live another life, free from the hustle and bustle of the workaday world. For others, it’s rest and recreation, a limited furlough into another person’s imagination. There we live life as characters in a well-spun story – as knights on a warpath, champions of damsels in distress or slayers of dragons.
Until such time the book bore the indignity of being dangerous, a sort of forbidden talisman that opens our eyes to realities once unreachable to ordinary mortals. Even in the middle of telling the most elaborate fantasies, the truth simply cannot remain hidden when read from a book. Public and university libraries – no greater than 1,500 in a country populated by a little over 100 million – became the target of censors and inquisitors, putting books – even children's books – under lock and key for being age-inappropriate. The truth, though, is that power hates being exposed.
And like a loaded gun in a murderer’s hand, the book now carried with it the stigma of killing the old self and resurrecting the consciousness to a world hardly seen and heard. Wherever it goes, it wears the scarlet letter like some adulterer who tempts and confuses us with her beauty. Soon enough books were shunned, and thereafter banned, and on the night of May 10, 1933, burned.
While no one can tell the precise moment when a book took on the role of a weapon of mass destruction, this much is certain: The destruction wasn’t meant for everyone, only those who felt their power was threatened by the telling of a good story.
And only power in extremis would think of books as something akin to a car bomb waiting to explode. Reading a book about the cruel machinations of a tyrant is an exercise in exorcism. Ripping the demons of cruelty from a society barely able to tell between atrocity and charity makes a book one of the most powerful incantations the world has ever known.
In these dark times, it is only through the unbearable rightness of reading that we can reimagine a newer world, one better achieved by empathy than by cold, calculating power.
In the age of systematic poverty, disinformation, and social media, is the book slipping into irrelevance? Will books help stem the tide of lies, mythmaking, the abolition of history? Will they survive a “cancel culture" that seeks to ban certain books on the pretext that they foment revolution?
In fantasy author Neil Gaiman’s words: “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”
In a world where information lies at one’s fingertips, ignorance becomes a choice. Since 2016, a little over 9,000 book titles have been published in the Philippines annually, according to the National Library of the Philippines, with 80% of the population preferring books to read, per the National Book Development Board. Why the apparent ignorance on several important issues? Comprehension seems to be on top of the list of problems. While some studies have focused on systemic poverty to explain why comprehension is low among socially disadvantaged students, this also tells us that, as a whole, parents and teachers alike take information only at face value, without critically assessing the data.
This country needs to undergo huge structural changes if only to reassert the significance of reading – and reading critically – in every home. We can begin by tapping into our inner child, by letting our curiosity run free.
In these dark times, it is only through the unbearable rightness of reading that we can reimagine a newer world, one better achieved by empathy than by cold, calculating power. You may not like what you see when gripped by a certain story or poem, but make no mistake: The more unpleasant a book, the more it is likely to rouse you to the role you must play – hero or villain – in this never-ending story of our lives.