MenagerieStuck in the fringe: The culture of reading
Stuck in the fringe: The culture of reading
October 26, 2015
October 26, 2015

“Mutability is our tragedy, but it is also our hope,” Boethius, a philosopher of the 6th century, once said. Every day, more than ever, the mutability of the world forces itself upon our doorstep, and every tweet and Facebook post contributes to that greater scheme of movement.

The book industry, a world in itself, operates through this scheme as well. Over the past decade, we’ve witnessed the rise of the digital age, and with it, the rise of e-books. Some publishing houses embraced this change initially, thinking it would aid them to gain more books sales if they were sold online, while other bookstores, both chain and independent, began their fight against an awry future brought about by threats of obscurity.

Eventually, it became clear which side was winning when articles that bonded books and bookstores with words and phrases like ‘lament’, ‘closed down’, and ‘dying’, arose. It seemed like even decades of rich literary history did not completely inoculate these independent bookstores from the crippling effects of technology. The change in cultures threatened Librairie Delamain, the oldest bookstore in Paris, while Manhattan, once a literary stronghold, was coined by The New York Times as a ‘Literary City, Bookstore Desert’.

There is a more obvious game of tug-of-war between two book cultures in other countries, but in the Philippines, only two to three independent bookstores thrive in a deserted reading landscape, and reading substantial books is often a privilege. The bigger challenge isn’t in saving a culture, but proliferating one.

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Back to our roots

Padre Faura, a street suffused with contradictions, can be seen as both a remnant of things past and a passage to the city’s present neon-splattered nightlife. In between two commercial establishments stands an enduring relic of the past, specifically of a time when the wounds of American occupation ached fresh—the La Solidaridad Bookshop, which holds an impressive collection of Filipiniana books.

Mr. Tonet Jose, the son of writer F. Sionil Jose, sits behind the display of printed books ranging from history, philosophy, and obscure Asian literature personally hand-picked by the elder Jose himself. Upon entering, a casual bell rings to signal the shopkeeper. Bach plays in the background. The aisles are empty. “This was the first bookstore 50 years ago that was air-conditioned and that had a sound system.” Not much has changed since then, he explains. Did he refer to the Bach or to the empty aisles?

At first glance, it would seem that the bookstore was handicapped by its old-fashioned ways, since La Solidaridad steered clear of any kind of mass marketing. Only educators, researchers, and devoted students pass on word of this bookshop, which offers more unique and idiosyncratic titles. Jose tells of an encounter with a few Russian students who came to explore the bookstore for Filipino titles, with most of them capable of speaking deep Filipino. He also shares how the bookstore is in contact with universities abroad that intend to get copies of certain Filipiniana books. It thus becomes clear that La Solidaridad acts as a bridge across the chasm between the Filipino culture and the foreign.

“The people that usually come here are more or less the same. They have just grown and aged.” Jose says this humorously, admitting that more people come now than before. It is hard to believe when the shelves are filled to the brim and look untouched. But he finishes his thought with a more general and honest opinion about today’s generation. “They’re about the same because they don’t read. They come here because the teacher told them to read those books. But for leisure readings, it’s very rare to see them.”

Other times, bookstores may do better than expected. Once a year, National Bookstore holds a Warehouse Sale—a much-anticipated event where people may buy dozens of books at a time for less than half the price. Hundreds of people are attracted by this weeklong event, but only a fraction of such are marginally aware that independent bookstores even exist in the area.

Whether this is an indicator of the general interests of the public or the success of the marketing strategies of National Bookstore is hard to tell. What is certain is that if an event like the Warehouse Sale can be held successfully then Filipinos should have the capacity to enjoy literature and patronize bookstores like La Solidaridad.

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It’s in the horse’s own will to drink

What kind of atmosphere allows for independent bookstores like the La Solidaridad Bookshop to not only survive, but also thrive? Certainly, local bookstores could copy the past success of independent bookstores in New York City and Paris if they paid attention to the clever tactics those bookstores used to lure customers in.

Well, not necessarily. Unfortunately for independent bookstores—and for anyone who’s interested in selling books in the Philippines—the root of their struggles might lie within the Filipinos themselves. It’s not a question of how well paperback books are selling, but how well books are being sold in general, whether they be printed or digital. The fate of independent bookstores may rest on the Filipino psyche.

Dr. David Bayot, the Executive Publisher for the DLSU Publishing House, maintains the viewpoint that in the digital age, most good books are online. But even the increasing availability of educational books can hardly coax an average Filipino to consider checking one out. “I have a feeling that if you locked [a person] in an empty space without any kind of social media and put a lot of books, if he or she doesn’t want to read, then no amount of pressure or isolation would make them read,” he confides.

For all the talk about ‘nostalgia’ or ‘educational value,’ it still didn’t give independent bookstores an edge over the competition. Why? Because of one simple fact: most Filipinos don’t like to read. “No amount of wonderful independent bookstores would force the readers to read if they don’t want to,” Dr. Bayot says. Independent bookstores that focus on delivering quality books have their work cut out for them if the average Filipino is only interested in just reading popular titles, it seems, as many just shy away from books altogether.

There’s an old saying that goes, ‘you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink’. Dr. Bayot firmly believes that “the quality of education […] is in the hands of the person being educated.” If people collectively make an effort to be responsible for their own education, independent bookstores—and indeed our whole society—will be much better off. It’s time for active learners and readers to become the majority.


Parting words

In an article written by Ken Kalfus published in The New Yorker, he narrates the universal experience of book buyers in his piece entitled A Book Buyer’s Lament. He says: “Buying a book and choosing the place to do so involve delicate and complicated considerations. You may fail to do the right thing.” But what exactly is the right thing? In our country, it seems that through e-books and self-education, we can create beautiful, hopeful possibilities, not only for the ‘life of the mind’, but also for the humble establishments that fight to cultivate it. We need to propel ourselves to make the first step, so the empty aisles of La Solidaridad can be full to bursting.

As he arrives in the bookstore, Kafus writes: “I remain in place, waiting for the impulse that will propel me inside, painfully aware that the survival of literature depends on it,” he ends his piece, and thus, in a similar way, we end ours.