WHEN I saw Aga again, she told me about a blogosphere war that waged with even more heat but decidedly less sleaze than the stir over the Hayden-Katrina sex videos.
In college, Aga could be counted on to brave even the flesh-eaters of Colon cinema houses to watch every movie showing that week. Her impromptu reviews helped make us decide whether to troop to the theater for a quick fix or hoard our pesos for a good read.
These days Aga has swung heavily to the save-for-a-book side. Remembering our last talk about the graphic novels created and published in the country, I mentioned to her that I had been trying to find for my niece a complete set of the Twilight series.
When I couldn’t find two of the older titles some weeks ago, I assumed it was because I hitched a ride on the bandwagon so late, the stocks had already depleted.
Aga corrected my ignorance. I followed her advice and checked the blogosphere.
Manuel L. Quezon III’s May 4 column for The Philippine Daily Inquirer’s “The Long View” exposes the issue and links readers to www.mcsweeneys.net, which posts the dispatch that first exposed the “Great Book Blockade of 2009.”
This was penned by Robin Hemley, director of the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa, who’s spending a Guggenheim Fellowship in the country.
A book-industry professional told Hemley that for the past two months no imported books entered the country because the BOC was on a duty-collection frenzy after an importer “made the mistake” of paying taxes for the release of his shipment of Twilight by Stephenie Meyer.
The bestselling record of the series may have attracted Customs, whose officials bent out of shape international and national laws to tax imported books, in the hope perhaps of covering “the 30-billion-peso ($625 million) shortfall in projected customs revenue,” Hemley speculates.
In 1952, the country signed the Florence Agreement, a United Nations treaty that guarantees the free flow of "educational, scientific, and cultural materials" between countries, and declares that imported books should be duty-free. The country also passed Republic Act 8047, which provides for "the tax and duty-free importation of books or raw materials to be used in book publishing."
With President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo scrapping last May 24 the taxes imposed on imported books and reading material, I partly agree with Aga that I may have better chances now of redeeming my standing with my niece.
However, looking around the café we were in, my thoughts were not on Twilight’s love-crossed vampires.
The Abaseria Deli & Café’s charm as a meeting place is heightened by its collection of heirloom photos, native handicrafts and books about Cebu and the Philippines. I even spotted copies of the recently published Barili, The Town, The People, and The Years: A History, written by Azucena L. Pace.
Last year, when I scouted for local publications to give my balikbayan relatives, I found a yawning gap that the University of San Carlos’ Cebuano Studies Center, Casa Gorordo Museum and a few other establishments try to fill.
While everybody rues the decline of reading today, even worse is the fading of local writing and reading, halves of a tandem. For a culture to flourish, there has to be recollection and preservation, one approach being through writing, which can only be sustained by an audience that will buy, read, criticize and discuss.
While the local publication industry has made milestones and garnered awards through its newspapers and magazines, the publishing of books continues to lag. Some readers will say they cannot find anything that’s local to read. Some writers will say they cannot find publishers, who in turn complain they cannot find readers to patronize local books.
Unlike the “Great Book Blockade of 2009,” we cannot blame anyone for this impasse but ourselves.
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* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s June 7, 2009 “Matamata” column