Saturday, September 14, 2013

Dream of readers

I CAN’T wait for classes to be over this week so I can check out the 34th Manila International Book Fair.

Antsy since Sept. 11, the opening day, to go to the fair, I Googled and got an overhead view of one of the exhibit halls.

People reduced to brightly hued sequins are poring beside drunkenly leaning topiaries of books: a vision of Filipinos as a nation of readers.

It’s a discordant image if replayed against a typical moment in a school library.

Less than a month away is “hell week,” undergraduates’ term for five days of final exams. The closer we come to ending the semester, the more religious or superstitious some get about learning: tables are actually occupied by the readers, not the sleepers or the social networkers.

On “low demand” days, the library is a near empty cathedral, surrounded by phalanxes of the articles of its faith, minus the believers. The hush of our libraries stems from the absence of bodies, not the depths of inquiry and reflection.

What can induce more Filipinos to read?

Perhaps the answer may not be found in campus libraries, where the fear of failure is a major prop for the overarching reason of its existence: learning.

When one is directed to read, the material, no matter how peerless and edifying, curdles desire from the first glimpse of the title. The regimen of reading prescribed in classrooms usually ends in transforming what is intuitive and natural into complicated and rigorous, like learning how to breathe step by step.

Can new media promote a variant of reading? Outside of the college library, I see young people in corridors, gazebos, canteens, jeepneys, the MRT. They seem to be reading. What they read, though, is not conventional books but a mix of text, images, and even sounds.

Perhaps the form and content of what passes as online reading is less important than the user interface (UI) that makes the machine both a synthetic and a natural extension of the human.

UI, which is Internet jargon for “user-friendly,” captures the malleability of new media and the Internet to suit not just the human but every human with all the tics and quirks staking out individuality. Online, I am who I am. I can even become others.

Isn’t this at the bottom of a lifetime of reading, learning, and actualization: self-control? I read what I want; thus, I can be.

Deflating this pipe dream of an online-engineered nation of readers was a recent interlude during a mammoth sale of a national chain of bookstores. To become a reader in this country is to fit a certain mold.

First prerequisite: fluency in English. Outside of the academic press, bookstores cater nearly exclusively to fiction and non-fiction in English. It is our national language, if we shed all claims to a prehispanic authenticity or pretensions of supra-regional solidarity.

Facility with the global lingua is our lifeline to survival. Will there ever be a generation that will not export Filipino workers to all corners of the globe?

Will the K to 12 program that is now resurrecting mother tongues at the primary level raise a generation of readers that will write AND read the Filipino Novel in Cebuano, Tagalog, Ilocano, Hiligaynon, Waray-Waray, and other Filipino languages? Filipiniana, a mere section in this national chain of bookstores, is still dominated by Filipinos writing in English.

Second prerequisite: technologically equipped public education. In our college are four units of wifi-connected public computers. Any student can use this for free, provided one can find a unit not shared by a gaggle of classmates or monopolized by a student lost in Internet space.

The sea of privately owned netbooks, smartphones and tablets in this college turns these few public computers into an island of access. Until reading becomes democratized, the playgrounds of learning and becoming will be limited to the classes of privilege.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Sept. 15, 2013 issue of the Sunday editorial page column, “Matamata”

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