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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.


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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

entry arrow1:19 AM | Reading and Poverty



By Roberto S. Salva

I began to read prodigiously when I was around 17 years old. I was trying to make it on my own in the big city and found myself diving into abject poverty. If one of the priest-speechwriters of Jaime Cardinal Sin had not hired me as his research assistant, I would have been a janitor.

I applied as a janitor. I already had a plan. I would mop floors and clean rooms, and at the end of the day, I would come home, turn my lamp on and read. I could not have wished for a more comfortable arrangement.

I did research, instead, and read for work until late in the evening. But I still found time to come home and read for myself.

I had not probed into the reasons why I read and why reading seemed to iron out all the wrinkles at the end of my everyday life then. It is only now that I am able to ponder on reading after seeing the results of the Reading Surveys done by the Social Weather Stations in early 2003 and late 2007.

According to the surveys, around 91 percent of Filipinos in 2003 and 85 percent in 2007 read non-school books to gain knowledge and more information. As a statistician, I feel that something is amiss in the crafting of that category. Or, many of the readers may not have captured perfectly the reason why they read. (The next consistent reason given is “enjoyment.”)

It is hard to nail down the one reason why we read, much like falling in love. If we do give reasons, they do not give justice at all to the act. Yet, we continue to read, just as we continue to love.

The reasons given also seem inconsistent with the books read by most. The list is topped by the Bible (67 percent in 2007), followed by romance or love novels (33 percent), cookbooks (28 percent), comic books (26 percent), and religious or inspirational books (20 percent).

Except for cookbooks, the books on the list are not the best books to read if we want to gain knowledge or more information. We do attain certain knowledge and get information from these books but if we are reading toward these ends, we are being inefficient. Enjoyment as the primary objective for reading would have made more sense, given that list.

But it would have been awkward for the survey respondents to give more emphasis on “enjoyment” rather than the more ideal reason of gaining knowledge as the reason for reading. We are a predominantly Catholic country after all, and we abhor any trace of pleasure in our bones.

Given also our education and our country’s poverty, reading for pleasure seems to be an impractical reason. And this is not the time to be impractical.

Perhaps reading is really not practical, especially if we are living in poverty. When I was 17 and poor, I did not read for some pragmatic results that reading would have in my life. But with my every reading, I was able to struggle with the imagination, rationality and ideas of Dickens, Chesterton, Camus, Kafka, Buber, Augustine, Marcel, Levinas, Chaim Potok, Fr. Roque J. Ferriols—some of the authors on my reading list then. (And yes, I am bragging a little.)

I found compassion and camaraderie in these authors. My own imagination and my own ideas surfaced and they were strengthened by being rubbed against their works. I had no illusions whatsoever that I was in their league. (But that is another one good thing about reading books: we rub elbows with the authors, even the big ones.)

Reading made me acknowledge the existence of my own imagination, my own ideas, and my own visions. My own mind. These were strengthened with every reading.

If you are poor and marginalized, you need to have your own mind for important discourses are taking place with every step you take toward development—every single step.

Being poor and marginalized—as I have observed in myself, in the urban poor I worked with before and among the people I am working with now—is like being stuck as a teenager. You do not seem to have control over your life. You don’t have your own money. Nobody seems to understand you. You hear a lot of voices telling you that you do not belong, how you should be, how you should live your life, how far you can go and what your limits are. The loudest voices come from within.

It is easy to be defeated by these voices when you do not have your own mind. It is easy to accept that you are poor because you are supposed to be lazy. You are a criminal because you live in the squatters’ area. You deserve to be ridiculed and treated badly because you are deaf or poor. You do not have to go to college because higher education is only for those who are “normal.” You do not have a future because you were born to a hopeless situation. You do not read because reading is only for the educated and the well-placed.

Most of the development initiatives do not touch upon the discourses going on in the mind of the poor and the sidelined. There may be livelihood projects, but do you know that many urban poor are paralyzed when they are asked to fill up a bio-data form or to take a personality test? Gawad Kalinga may build you a house, the microfinance institute may give you access to credit, and your community organization may give you a voice, but what happens when you have your house, money or voice?

Read.

[From the Philippine Daily Inquirer]

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