Words freely flowing

LODESTAR - Danton Remoto - The Philippine Star

Last week, I wrote about the red-tagging that some people have done on Popular Book Store in Timog, Quezon City and La Solidaridad Bookshop in Ermita, Manila. I would also like to reprint the comments made by two distinguished Filipinos about the issue, both of whom are pillars in Philippine publishing.

Karina A. Bolasco is the director of the Ateneo de Manila University Press. She used to head Anvil Publishing, which published the best Philippine writing in the last 30 years. She was also a fellow at the Center for South East Asian Studies at the highly-rated Kyoto University in Japan before the COVID-19 pandemic.

She said: “We probably have the lowest bookstore per population size ratio! And look at what small-minded, power-hungry people did to two little independent bookstores, both trying so hard to stay afloat and, even during this pandemic, against all odds, struggle to keep the business going. And for that service, to a nation of young minds, of keeping up the world’s broadest and longest, stimulating conversation, these bookstores are vandalized, red-tagged and marked [as fronts of the New People’s Army] NPA or subversive.

“Bookstores crowded with ideas of all kinds pulsating from different groups of people: thinkers, historians, scholars, storytellers and artists – are precisely the space where no single ideology or one tyrant can survive. These ideas, borne on robust languages and fueled by truth, teach us to discern, be critical and free to not obey in advance and blindly follow.

“These days, and for a long time now, we must watch out for dangerous words. For almost regularly, and very quickly, the absurd and the horrible takes place. Like first, banning or burning books in libraries. And now this, marking bookstores. We must be ready for the unthinkable.”

Dr. Cristina Pantoja Hidalgo was the director at the University of the Philippines Press and former vice president for Public Affairs at the UP System. She was also the director of the University of Santo Tomas Press and now the director of the UST Center for Creative Writing and Literary Studies. Like Karina, she was aghast at the times that had befallen us.

“The idiotic goons who recently vandalized and red-tagged Popular Bookstore and Solidaridad, obviously were ignorant about what these establishments they targeted really are. Hello! These are not just book shops. They are institutions! They have been around for decades, faithfully serving mainly teachers, students and other lovers of ideas, of learning, of cultures. They are the only bookstores in Metro Manila that carry literary titles and other important (or simply fascinating, or maybe esoteric) titles in different fields, by both Filipino and foreign authors. (Instead of just a few bestselling foreign paperbacks, along with ball pens, backpacks, scrapbooks, stationery, umbrellas, Christmas decor, etc.) As an undergraduate Philosophy student in UST in the 60s, it was to these two bookshops, and to Tony Abaya’s now-defunct Erehwon (located near F. Sionil Jose’s Solidaridad), that I and my friends and schoolmates went, for titles we badly needed, or had heard of, and badly wanted, to read. And they’ve stayed the course. So they are now serving another generation of readers. And we, as a people, owe them!

“So who’s next? Fully Booked? Maybe not. It doesn’t really carry Philippine Literature. But then again, by definition, idiotic goons and vandals wouldn’t know that.”

It all reminds me sadly of the dystopian novel, “Fahrenheit 451” by the science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury. First published in 1953, it is regarded as probably Bradbury’s finest book. It has been justly praised for its stand against censorship and its defense of literature as important for the humanity of individuals and civilization.

The story takes place in an unnamed city in the future. The protagonist, Guy Montag, is a fireman whose job is to burn down houses where books have been discovered. After leaving work one day, he meets Clarisse, a teenaged girl who enjoys nature and asks if he is happy. At home, he finds that his wife, Mildred, has swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills in a suicide attempt. After he calls for help, two men arrive and revive her. The next morning, she behaves as though nothing happened and watches as usual the programs on the TV screens that make up three of the parlor walls. Montag and Clarisse talk regularly, until one day she is not outside waiting for him; he eventually learns that she was killed by a speeding car. Later, when the firemen are sent to burn down the house of an elderly woman, Montag takes her Bible – an act that he thinks his hand has undertaken on its own. The woman chooses to die with her books. Montag begins to have doubts about his mission, and the next day he stays home from work.

Lives unravel and the plot twists and turns, with the pacing of a well-written thriller. Bradbury’s insight brings us back to the dawn of civilization, when men and women gathered around a bonfire in the caves where they lived, to tell stories to each other. Storytelling was not only a necessity in a world without television and social media; it was also important to make sense of life.

Pat Bauer writes for the Britannica: “Montag and the other firemen go out on a call, and it turns out that it is Montag’s house that is to be burned down. Montag is informed that Mildred was the one who reported him, and she leaves in a taxi without talking to her husband. After Captain Beatty orders Montag to burn the house down, he obeys and then turns the flamethrower on Beatty, killing him. He flees to Faber’s home, and the retired professor tells him that he can escape by following railroad lines to the countryside. Montag evades the intensive manhunt and later encounters a group of men sitting around a bonfire. Their leader, Granger, tells him that each of them has memorized a book in hopes of using the knowledge to rebuild society. They then watch as bombs destroy the city. Afterward the men head back to the city to begin the task of starting civilization anew.”

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Email: [email protected]. Penguin Books has published the author’s novel, Riverrun.

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