Sunday, September 19, 2010

The reader

TODAY, local journalists observe a weeklong commemoration of press freedom.

Thirty-eight years ago, Ferdinand Marcos placed the country under martial law and scuttled all forms of liberty.

Such Sept. 21 associations put the spotlight on the journalist.

This year, though, my thoughts are on the other player, less visible but more vital: the reader.

The term, “reader,” limits. The generic “audience” encompasses better the target of all forms of messages.

Yet, with technology and the Internet changing the way we communicate, the concept of “audience,” slouching like a group of people passively receiving and reacting to media content, seems antediluvian.

Contemporary communication is all about the counterflow. Audiences now text, blog, tweet and network through Facebook and other sites. While before, the mass media and some institutions like the state shaped the public agenda, the traditional media now pick up issues first raised and later whipped up to critical mass by Netizens.

Although intrigued by citizens adept at and assertive in using the new communication tools, I am keeping my eyes on the reader.

Yes, that’s right: this is the person who picks up a paper or book or can of meat and deciphers word, sentences or symbols for meaning.

In rarefied circles like the academe, reading may be convoluted and competitive: “I’m reading women’s studies at the University of the Philippines” is not equated with the same gravitas as “I am reading the label to find out this corned beef’s sodium content”.

But in daily usage, language is liberated from pedantic neuroses. English, the language used by four billion people—representing two-thirds of the planet, claims—has a variety of expressions to accommodate all kinds, as well as levels, of reading.

My copy of the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, for instance, lists these words when one is reading parts only of something: “dip into” and “flick/leaf/browse through”. If one’s reading quickly, “scan” and “skim” will do. Or if carefully, “pore over” and “scrutinize”.

What the British bemoan as “plowing through” is, more or less, the same as an American’s “wading through”. Both expressions stand for the act of reading something long and boring, or “plough through,” if one prefers standard English.

To those who think this is petty puffery, I’d like to know how they think one can fill out forms without knowing how to read? Or write one’s name or find an address or read a lover’s poem and find out if it’s been copied?

Reading takes up time, specially since reading usually begets rereading.

Don’t begrudge reading the hours and reflection demanded. What activity other than reading yields a more invaluable bumper crop: perseverance to ferret out meaning, patience to listen to another without butting in, and perspective to discover how one’s views are better when buffed against the thoughts of others, whether like or unlike-minded?

Last year, I listened to Randy David recall how it was when martial law (ML) was imposed in the country: teachers, students, writers and activists raced to burn and get rid of their books and other writings before they were arrested and taken away.

Though aged seven when ML was declared, I felt my own throat gag, imagining hundreds of toilets all over the country jamming under the weight of ashes flushed in the haste of fear.

This time, it may be better. In Sun.Star Superbalita’s Sept. 17 issue are photos showing politicians reading stories to school children and a company donating books to Sawang Calero Elementary School. According to a Sept. 15 “Neighborhood” article in Sun.Star Cebu, the Armed Forces of the Philippines and a private commercial bank are distributing 500,000 books to grade two pupils in public schools in Central Visayas.

In another “Neighborhood” article, published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Sept. 17 issue, Quota International of Metro Cebu launched a drive to collect books for children with special needs in six public Special Education Centers in Cebu City. On Sept. 24-26, Tsinelas Association Inc. will hold its third “Their Books” sale in an uptown mall to raise funds to keep children in school.

How apt: from a 38-year-old memory of ashes uncoiling from the bowels of history, these tales of renewal for any reader to relish and reread.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Sept. 19, 2010 issue of “Matamata”

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