The sun was four inches above the waters of Manila Bay when we finally made our way to the little gathering of determined individuals who were protesting the Great Book Blockade. Because nothing really happens unless the media covers it, I was glad to see GMA7 sent a news crew to interview the organizers and document participants of the book swap. We arrived when there were only a few dozen books left for the picking. I suppose they went really fast.
People were clicking away at the books and each other when I spotted my friend chatting up a man puffing away at a tobacco. An event like that could only attract nerds, and he was a good sort. After their exchange about tobaccos I quizzed him about why he was at the event. I must confess the government’s book taxing shenanigans never got a rise out of me. There is a point where one is inured to it all, and I always thought that compared to people being made to disappear or denying land justice to farmers, taxes on books merited less of my emotional engagement.
As frenetic as EDSA on a Monday morning, the conversation went all sorts of places pretty quickly. I forget now the details of what we talked about, but I am left with impression of one person who, hopefully, mirrors the many more hiding in the woodworks, raring to fight back against the wrongdoing of those in power. His head was covered in anti-sun gear, a grayish fisherman’s hat and dark lenses on his glasses, every once in a while taking a drag at the prize between his index and middle fingers. From the Bataan Death March to the activism of his folks in the Martial Law era, he painted quick splashes on our historical canvass.
“Did you see who carted away the books first?” I murmured a negative, having come a bit late. He motioned his head to the inhabitants of the Manila Bay area, skin darkened from sleeping underneath the naked sky. To be clear I said, “You mean the Great Unwashed carted most of the books away?” In a conspiratorial way only journalists would ever be able to manage, he murmured an affirmative. “You see, we the so-called enlightened ones like to assume the hoi polloi would never care for books. But right there, before my eyes, was proof that isn’t true.” Indeed. The printed word is a luxury for many. In our little enclaves we tend to forget the great privilege of being able to make sense of letters strung together. What jewels they must be for those whose precious monies must be spent on not starving.
So much of who I am, what I believe and how I perceive the world and my place in it have come from all that I have ever read. Stripped of all that, what would I be?
A tiny woman with yellowed teeth and bulging eyes sidled along me and two friends in conversation. Her cheekbones jutted sharp against skin. I imagine lack of food does that to one’s body. Not a feet from me is a person who has probably lived with chronic hunger all her life. What that must be like, as being unable to read, is again unimaginable. She asked us what the project was about and made appropriate responses about how good it was and for young kids to be able to take advantage of free books. After establishing some rapport, she asked us for five pesos. I normally do not give alms, but I gave her twenty, amazed that she did her begging with a strange kind of dignity. She said her thanks and proceeded carting boxes and trash away.
I glanced over at the thinning crowd at the leftover books sitting on the cement. I imagined what sort of person I would have turned out to be had I not been born in a family that could send me to school, or afford me books to read. Because language carries, as the written word carries, I imagine illiteracy holds one inert, frozen in the immediacy of hunger and thirst, of life and death, of negotiating now and tomorrow.