How do you know a country has “a reading culture”?

Every September is a good time to go shopping for books. Every year I look forward to the Manila Book Fair, along with sales in many different local book stores. Being based in Manila, I have to admit that I’ve felt very limited in what book stores I can go to and which ones  can offer a cheaper price. Not to mention, the titles which usually grab my attention are not usually available in most branches and might be more economical to order online.

Over here, it’s easy to see that preferences in readership range from badly-written romance novelletas, to romantic-horror fiction, to self-help books by celebrities. A quick google search of local bookstores’ bestsellers will easily show this.

I take it as a sign that, over here, the reading preference has not only been price-based, but also based on how well titles can offer some release from daily life. In a highly-stressful capital like Manila, reading classics is a conscious and rare choice. Understandably, reading Milan Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” while on the MRT, could easily launch one into existential depths when one has to walk because the train broke down.

If there’s any positive note to books and readership over here in Manila, in the past years, one thing has been constant– bookstores double as libraries. So far, I think it’s quite a welcome sight to see that Fully Booked has placed signage that it’s all right to remove the plastic and browse through the books. In an informal interview I conducted a few years back, one book-seller from another popular bookstore said that they had to cover books in plastic because of the cost it incurred to have so many damaged books– mostly due to readers who decide to finish the book and not buy it.

Contrast this to the second-hand books that I found in Japan. Our group was brought to the bookstore block of Jimbocho in Tokyo. We spent 4 to 5 hours looking at the collections of spotless secondhand books (I really wondered if they were even read). Some books went back to the 80’s, some even further. In many of those bookstores, there was a cafe inside, or right beside, for readers who wanted to take time to have coffee or tea while reading through their purchased books.

The myriad collection of books was not the only thing that astounded me while I looked through the books in Jimbocho. What caught my interest more was the amount of care that went into keeping books organized, and how readers made sure to return books properly.

While so many second-hand books and bookstores exist within Manila, with books priced dirt-cheap, often times it’s because you get what you paid for. I have yet to find a bookstore that has a cafe that allows readers to bring books and browse through them while having a dessert or a cup of coffee. I’m also not sure if the reason for this is because the local culture will take anything for free if it’s presented as an opportunity– even if it means bankruptcy for the business.

Inasmuch as I didn’t want to believe that the Philippines “is not a reading culture”, having seen the reading culture of Japan really gave me perspective on how different our priorities are. While we were browsing through books in Jimbocho, I’d notice businessmen stopping by to browse through some technical books (engineering / sciences). Also, while there were a number of bookstores on manga, I had to learn how naive I was, and realize that there were specialty bookstores depending on what genre you were interested in.

Not only was having a “reading culture” about a wide readership, but a discernment of what to fill one’s mind with. And, with Japan, this ranged from the simple to the most complex of topics and genres.

The curiosity and the ability to acquire knowledge was so available and accessible while I was in Tokyo, that now I feel so limited being back in Manila and figuring out how to get safely from one library to another. It took me a while to re-think how much I thought I knew just because I thought I had found enough books locally… only to see that the subject had been written on extensively and archived in Japan.

It’s both exhilarating and frustrating at the same time. This must be a common feeling for a scholar though… and I have only begun.

Every now and then, I still dream about that bookstore tour. I still recall the wall-to-wall books, the scrolls that were for specialty scholars, the art books that cost a fortune for a young worker like myself. But most of all, I miss that natural curiosity and love for further learning that filled that area. THAT was a reading culture, and I still hope for a Filipino readership that could reach such levels without the class-based limitations.

 

 

 

 

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