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Bridges of the self

TOWARDS JUSTICE - Emmeline Aglipay-Villar (The Philippine Star) - April 20, 2021 - 12:00am

In this digital age where a single flash drive has the potential to store more information than the entirety of the lost Library of Alexandria the old-fashioned book has become synonymous with a certain virtue, of both the “traditional” reader and a way of life that allowed us enough time to read. With the advent of smart phones and e-readers, along with the rise of social media, many experts predicted the death of the book as we knew it, and an accompanying end to our ability to focus on concepts longer than the length of a single tweet.

Years later, when many of those novel social networks have been abandoned by the youth for fresher media, the “book as we know it” is still here. After a brief decline, printed book sales in many areas of the world have bounced back and continue to steadily increase. This doesn’t mean that people are no longer reading ebooks or social media either – sales of digital books remain strong, particularly since the pandemic began, and obviously social media use is higher than ever before. Most readers simply broadened their definition of what a book is, just as they had before when movable type arrived, or when pulp fiction or comic books were introduced. People who loved to read continued to read, alongside all the other new media they consumed, just as they had when television and radio came along.

April 23 is World Book and Copyright Day, and it’s a good time to reflect on what books mean to us, and what they’ve represented for humanity throughout history. Books haven’t always been synonymous with virtue – in fact, quite often they’ve been seen as instruments of vice. Once books became accessible to the masses, suddenly books were denounced as sources of distraction and eyestrain, a familiar refrain that’s been used against everything from television to smart phones. Some even went so far as to say too much fiction reading could cause madness at most, and moral degeneracy at least.

While nowadays getting our children to enjoy reading is among a parent’s early goals, there were times in the past when advocates wanted the youth protected from too much reading. And while some of these admonitions may have been fueled by good intentions, many were motivated by more selfish reasons. Knowledge is power, and in allowing the growing number of literate individuals access to knowledge, books allowed for a distribution of power that upset many of those at the top of existing social orders.

It’s not a coincidence that many oppressive regimes begin their tyranny by campaigns against books. The burning of books, both literally and metaphorically, has almost always been a prelude to assaults on the marginalized, the scapegoats. One need look no further than the Nazi campaign against Jewish literature to see the darkest places where this hatred of books and ideologies can lead.

But while books are often the targets of destruction, though much has been lost, books themselves remain. They are rescued by those that love them, transcribed by those who shelve their words in their minds. The ideas within them inspire the production of more books, of more authors, of more readers. As long as people desire to learn from the past, books will live. As long as people desire to leave a legacy for the future, books will live.

This is the true power of the book – to be a bridge for the self. As human beings we live in an infinitesimally small part of the universe, for an infinitesimally small span of time. But books give us the ability to reach beyond our physical selves, to connect across time and space. Through books we can learn the innermost thoughts of those who are long dead, through books we can find solace in realms of imagination that have never existed. Through books we can live out hundreds of lives, learn from the mistakes of thousands without enduring the pain and use the dreams of others to fuel our own. Through books, we can leave a message for those that come after us, and allow them to build a better world on the shoulders of our own experiences.

When I wrote the book “Living Better with Lupus” together with Dr. Evelyn Osio Salido, Dr. Geraldine Zamora and Dr. Angeline Magbitang Santiago, I hoped that it would be able to help people with lupus and their families manage this chronic illness and to live full and fulfilling lives. And I was overjoyed to receive messages and emails from strangers telling me how the book has not only helped them to gain better health, but it has also given them inspiration through the personal experiences that I shared. Family members of people with lupus also said it has given them a window to understand what their family member with lupus is going through and what they can do to help. One said that reading my book made her realize that there was something to look foraward to despite having lupus. It also connected her to other people with lupus through the Hope for Lupus Foundation and this saved her life.

Many times we take for granted the possibilities that books offer. It can change and save lives and it can change and save the world.

It’s important to regularly remind ourselves of the importance of books, in part so that we don’t get in their way. Books have always been at the cutting edge of change, each variation to their form bringing about new controversy. Books by their nature can stir up intense feelings and  lead to intense arguments – but we should never let these debates get in the way of readers and their books. Books are containers but they themselves should not be constrained or contained by static definitions – they are always changing, evolving.  Books are books, whether they are on a printed page or a digital screen, whether they are in the form of a codex or a website, whether they have pictures or not, whether they are completely original or fan fiction. What matters is they allow us to connect – with ideas, with people, with ourselves. There is no ideal book, and there is no ideal reader. There is only you, and the bridges you choose to cross.

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