Readercon Filipino Friday Week 3: Being A Reader In The Philippines
Growing up in the Philippines during the 1980's, I know that I was one of the lucky ones. Back then, readers were at the mercy of whatever the bookstores of the time (National Bookstore, Alemar's, Bookmark) would carry. With no internet, this was a situation where readers were dependent on whatever the purchasers would like to have on their bookstores' shelves. This was similar to letting someone else decide what you could read, because the purchasers were deciding what you could buy (going further, one could argue that publishers, in choosing what to accept and print, are also deciding what you could read, but that's a whole other discussion). In the event that you got your hands on some article or review about an interesting book, it was completely hit or miss whether the store would have it. This applied to books from abroad and those sourced locally. But I had relatives who lived in other countries who, on their occasional visits, would actually bring me the latest titles. They didn't bring me boxes of books—just a couple or three—but it was enough to keep me ahead, and I remember and am grateful for their generosity. I actually received my first copy of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine this way. Add to that my mother being very supportive of my reading habit and who willingly bought me books from these stores, even with their limited choices, and I know I had it good. And even further, my school also had a pretty well-stocked and organized library for its time and size, particularly with the classics, and even with some pretty obscure titles and authors. Sadly, public libraries then, as now, are nothing like those found in the western world, which is a clear handicap for readers in my country.
This situation with the bookstores changed with the advent of steeper competition through the 1990's and the early aughts. Alemar's and Bookmark got killed by National Bookstore, but second-hand stores turned up, and they brought in truckloads of books from all over the world at reduced prices. Booksale, Books For Less, Chapters and Pages, and a myriad number of smaller stores bloomed like mushrooms after a rain. Then Fully Booked came along, bringing with it the customer service and presentation of a U.S. bookstore. At about the same time (I can't remember if this was before or after Fully Booked launched), National Bookstore started Powerbooks, their sister company, which also tried to sell books following the U.S. model. Powerbooks was the truer bookstore in contrast to the ironically named National Bookstore which thrives more on selling school and office supplies (this is not a hit on their business model; I am aware that they wouldn't be able to sell books if they didn't sell pencils, to paraphrase Socorro Ramos, the store's founder).
But with the internet, with a good enough line to the web, the playing field for readers is now pretty even. Simply visiting book review or book list blogs, or googling authors or titles, is sure to lead one to lists and FAQ's about the latest, or even old, books. Now, with ebooks, it's easy enough to just download your titles to your ereader or computer. Remember what I said about my school's library being pretty well-stocked for its time and size? When it comes to the classics, it's nothing compared to Gutenberg.org. Now, you can search the web for books in the genres you want, by the authors you want, and even receive recommendations of books about all topics from other readers all over the world.
This situation may not be so good for the brick-and-mortar bookstores, but for readers in the Philippines, yes, it's so much easier now, but it still depends a lot on who you are.
The majority of Pinoys live below the poverty line, have limited or no access to the web, and if they do have access, spend their time doing other things with their surfing time, like playing video games, engaging in social-networking, or doing what the majority of the world does, which is surf for porn. :D
The country's low wages also limits the physical books a regular Pinoy can buy, as books, especially new ones, can be relatively expensive as a percentage to one's take home pay. Food, shelter, clothing come first, and after that, who knows how much is left for a book, even a second hand one? Ereaders are growing in popularity, but still not at the same level as mp3 players did at the turn of the century; after all, they cost money too, as do computers. Cellphones can solve this, and Pinoys love their cellphones, but unlike in, say, Japan or Korea, the cellphone as ereader has not yet taken off here.
Most Pinoys too have barely passed high school, and the quality of education in this country remains a problem, a longstanding one. It cannot be disregarded that education contributes to an interest in reading. And going further, language too, is an issue. Though proficient with English for the most part, there is a segment of Pinoys who are, I believe, more comfortable with Filipino, or any of the dialects they grew up with in the provinces they're from; and that segment is substantial. I'm all for Filipino and other dialects' texts not just being printed, but also being made available on the web, if this would mean more people would take up reading (I'm on the record for saying that it doesn't matter what language you read in as long as you do). This would of course mean writers producing texts in those languages, whether original pieces or translations. These writers should be encouraged and given the incentives to do so.
Being a reader in the Philippines is easy if you read in a language whose material is plentiful and accessible on the web, and if you have easy access to it (you have a computer or other device that can connect to the internet, and you can pay for that access or can go to a place that provides it for free, like a mall). Take away any of these elements—the device, perhaps due to cost; the cost of surfing; the text of the language you prefer—and suddenly, it's not so easy anymore. This doesn't even take into consideration a person's personal interest to read.
Having said that, for someone like me--and there are many like me, as I'm part of a substantial segment also, though sadly, not as large as the other segments I have mentioned in this post—this is a good time to be a reader in the Philippines.