This post is an English rendering and update of my previous post, “Ang Libreng Bakasyon at Gamot” (5 August 2010).
Key Takeaway: There is much joy to be elicited from reading. It is a free and pleasurable (if you let it be) vacation and medicine – a vacation for mind and soul, and a medicine for soul and society. Today, many take it for granted, and correspondingly, the Social Cancer is still strong and spreading. Take up a book today, read, learn, and act!
A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted. You should live several lives while reading it.” -William Styron, manunulat
Call me a geeky bookworm or a bibliophile if you will, but that’s who I am and I am proud to be so. Since my childhood days, I’ve learned to love reading. This wasn’t limited to fishing a book out of my little library and reading on my bed – even music CD liner notes (lyrics, acknowledgements, you name it). Even the stuff printed on breakfast cereal boxes (the Bahasa always fascinated me too) wouldn’t slip undetected from my gaze. But of course, books held, still hold, and will always hold a special place in my heart. (As I write this, I am surrounded by about a dozen of them.)
In reading a book, whether it’s a novel or an almanac, my eyes and mind diligently sweep everything – I repeat, everything. Even intellectual property notices, forewords, acknowledgements, reviews (common for reissues of novels), and the liner notes on book jackets. I admit that sometimes these enter through one eye and leave through the other, but if the content is particularly interesting, it goes straight to my mind and stays there. Though I may not remember it all the time, I do know it’s there. Let’s just say it’s in a very secure, hard-to-reach vault in the Brain Bank.
I recall an incident in my childhood that today just makes me laugh fondly. It was around, or slightly before, the time that that notoriously heartbreakingly emotional Titanic came out. Well, I didn’t need the movie to profess my love for Titanic and the golden age of ocean liners, what more a novel of my brother’s I chanced upon while playing with his bookshelf: Walter Lord’s 1954 masterpiece A Night to Remember, the account of the sinking. I had just started to intellectually devour it when my brother discouraged me from doing so because it would be a difficult read for me, and that he would give me a simpler one instead for Christmas, which was upcoming at the time. Oh, yes, simple it was – a children’s storybook with lots of photos and a very thin manuscript. I finished it then and there; and I still felt unsatisfied, and yearning to read the Lord novel. Do they not understand, I told myself, that I can read this?
(I finally finished reading the book sometime in high school, only because I was “busy” with other things.)
Although I used to read just because I wanted to, I didn’t appreciate the true gift of reading until I had learned to effectively become my own philosopher – and I use this term liberally, because philosophizing is something I sorely lack in – which was much later. Reading is a cognitive process where our minds interpret what we read into an understandable and significant meaning. It is thus a form of communication, because in reading, information and ideas are imparted to the reader just as the scent of cooking an impeccably fragrant meal does. Furthermore, and as such, one becomes more aware of the ways of the world around him.
Not everyone likes to read, that is true – I have a number of friends I am honored to call good who are such. A lot say it’s not important to them, they don’t have time for it, they are lazy to do it, etc. Where this was formerly a leisure activity across all walks of life (the opening scene of Alice in Wonderland comes to my mind as I write this – for it’s very rare nowadays to find one strolling in the park just to sit under a tree, book in hand), today, in this fast-paced society, it does seem that there’s “no more time” to do something as slow-paced as reading.
Or is there?
Thanks to my student days even since preschool, which I more often than not took very seriously (I regret to say it wasn’t all the time), I was compelled to read thanks to the looming grading. As I became more advanced in learning and in years, so did the readings, both in quality and quantity. In third grade, we began the practice of having a novel in English (or Reading, as that half of English, the other being Language, was in our elementary school). In seventh grade, it doubled, and in high school, we had one per quarter, including one Shakespeare play per year. Oh, and that was just in English. We also had readings in other subjects, especially Filipino. But due to a mystery that I may be forever unable to comprehend, I am not as skilled in reading in Filipino, especially poetry. It takes me perhaps triple the time needed to read it, what more comprehend. But I said to myself, “Just do it, you can do it.” For the grades’ sake, I added.
(Remember, I wrote the original of this post at a time when I was still a student and, yes, laden with readings.)
But is it really just for grades?
I am sure we do not read just to read; reading isn’t an end in itself. Au contraire, reading is just the beginning. The beginning of a long process that, done carefully, can become the natural cure to society’s illnesses today. It is a medicine both free and painless – how I wish all medicines were like that – with no harmful side-effects. Let me explain: In reading, say, a story, we enter a world different from ours even slightly, into the world of the characters in said story. It is as if we were a god or, if the story employs first- or second-person point of view, a traveler who, caught mid-read, draws insights of the society being depicted. In their day-to-day life, we find out about their beliefs, words, thoughts, and deeds – their cultures.
(Now I want to become a student at Hogwarts, or a customer of a prewar Kyoto geisha.)
But is there any value to knowing all of these? Certainly! If we are travelers while reading, the act of reading itself is a vacation, a navigation, a pilgrimage. We can see these in two levels.
First, a fantasy vacation, one that costs nothing but time and in your own house (or in the park, or elsewhere). You don’t even have to move, except for your eyes and your hands turning the pages. That is what I meant by us becoming like gods or travelers who learn about the ways of life of people in the books we read. Even non-fiction books. In (auto)biographies, for example, we are transported to the period and setting – and perspective, if autobiographical – of the subject.
Second, it is both a quest for medicine and a transformation into medicine itself. As I said, the world today is sick, and it is not just global warming. Our national hero, José Rizal, illustrated this in his world-famous Noli Me Tángere and its sequel El Filibusterismo. Of particular interest to me is that the former’s English title isn’t the literal translation – Touch me Not – but The Social Cancer. Rizal’s words more than 100 years ago, sadly, still ring true today. Truly, the world is, as God said of the Hebrew people, a stiff-necked people who do not always learn from their mistakes. We hear of many stories today in the news and elsewhere about corruption in politics and business alike. Peaceful (and violent) rebellions. The intervention of supranational organizations like the United Nations, Human Rights Watch, or Amnesty International in sensitive issues.
The ancient Chinese believed in the Mandate of Heaven, where the dynasty of an emperor who is just and benevolent will be blessed, and that of a corrupt and cruel one will be overthrown. This also seems to still ring true today – God lets us suffer the natural consequences of our actions.
So how does reading cure this? Let’s take a look at history. His Story. Man’s (or God’s) story. I used to hate history as a subject, but like so many other aspects of my life, I belatedly appreciated it. We learn from the past – what humanity previously stumbled in, we improve on today. But as I said earlier, it’s not what happens all the time. Other times, it’s the reverse. However, it is definitely not a signal that we should wave a white flag. Reading today also grants us the gift of knowledge of learning from the past. It’s a field trip with a follow-up requirement to turn into action what we learn… if it is in the spirit of love and justice. Otherwise, turn to another reading.
They do say that society is mirrored in its literature. Noli and Fili show this, and even the other more contemporary novels, such Dekada ’70 and Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag. But if we are to truly reap the benefits of reading, this relationship becomes two-way: Society can also be mirrored by literature. It is our choice to do it.
So to achieve this, we cannot just read to read. There should be deeper results, visible or not. First, we should comprehend what we read, and recall it. Second, we should start living out the good things in what we read, starting with ourselves. We cannot change society for the better if we ourselves do not strive to live better – and included here is a change in perspective on reading. Third, we should share this modern-day gospel to others.
Oh, yes, it’s idealistic, easier said than done, yada yada yada. But we cannot deny it will be effective if not for a whole society, for oneself and their peers open to positive influence. And to work on the self is the first step always. We cannot remain naïve or ignorant to the things happening around us. In reading, step by step, that is replaced with knowledge: We take the first leg of a trip to true enlightenment, and there are many different airlines, whether it be Novel Airways, Air News, or Encyclopediair. All have the same destination, all have the same benefits (though certainly in their own unique ways).
So I thus invite you to take up any book today, start reading and learning from it, and continue to do so habitually. I have a huge backlog of this right now…