THE National Commission on Culture and Arts (NCCA) declared April as National Literary Month. They celebrate this with the theme “banyuhay” which translated means “metamorphosis” as they focused on “literature, a creative endeavor, is also a political and social institution as well as a force that shapes life and everyday living.”
This reminds of me of the influence of college English and literature teachers, the likes of Roland Bajo, Daphne Padilla, Dr. Macario Tiu and Agustin “Don” Pagusara, who guided and suggested us on exploring books that helped define our social meaning and struggles.
Then there were also fellow campus writers, indie journalists and activists who had the habit of discussing political books, novels and poetry, reading Lualhati Bautista, Jose Lacaba and his late brother Emman Lacaba, Garcia Marquez, and poetry by Neruda and Mao.
All this seems like yesterday. Now I'm startled. There's a saying that goes that to know a nation one must look at its books, and I'm afraid we are a country enmeshed in entertainment and feel good books.
If we look at the best-selling books from the Philippines, it's a list of showbiz people writing books of one-liner jokes and anecdotes, Watt-Pad romance, sugar-coated inspirational books, and trendy fantasy-sci-fi dystopia.
I wonder if this kind of trend is more of the anti-intellectualism that seems to abound nowadays. We see this attitude in social media when people deride “Wharton”-schooled politicos to “UP intellectuals.” We often hear of students moaning of the assigned reading of novels in English as “difficult” and ask instead if there's a movie adaptation to make things easier to digest.
There's a celebration now that it is okay to be “bogo,” rough, street smart rather than bookish intelligence, just look at our president who barely passed college yet gets the job done.
It's better to say a catchy phrase or one-liner rather than memorize a poem, that's what everybody in school is thinking.
But the danger in this oversimplification here is failing to see the value of reading. The attitude is that books are just for bright people, our history proved that's not true. Rizal was home schooled. Bonifacio, who never got to finish high school, poured on books like Les Miserables, Lives of the American Presidents and Noli that helped find his path for national liberation. Both Rizal and Bonficaio express their passions in poetry. A person filled with the words and human experience can achieve the next level.
So what I'm saying is not that we become ambitious to be the next heroes, but rather, we learn by reading, and we learn to say and write things clearly with our diligence to read and write. My gosh, how many of my friends who are teaching bemoan how students cannot simply figure out writing a request letter, an essay or figuring out the past and present, the singular and plural of words.
It may be the fault of schools that writing and reading is not passionately and creatively taught, and now K to 12 is reducing literature and Filipino subjects into senior high. It may be the fault of book publishing in the country that is miserable. A look at Wikipedia will show that the peak time the Philippines produced many books was in 1996, twenty years ago, where 1,500 books were published. Compare that to our Asean neighbors Vietnam and Indonesia which produced 24,000 books in 2009.
It may also be a fault of literary institutions, writers and again publishers whose mode of literature is defined by standards that are detached from the realities of the Filipinos, the stories of day-to-day struggle to survive, to go abroad, or to fight against injustice. There is no art for art's sake, literature must be lived and breathed.
Perhaps that is the literature needed so our country can achieve that metamorphosis, and more action should be taken now to bring back people to reading, and thinking right.