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The reading culture in the Philippines is defined by a unique set of challenges—yet, this doesn't mean that the Filipino way of storytelling is any less valid

There seems to be a general consensus among the literati in the Philippines and it's that: Filipinos, as a general population, don't seem to be very interested in reading. This may come as a shock to some, especially for the avid bookworms—and there are plenty—who flock to bookstores and spend un-regrettably high amounts of money just to find something to read. But statistics don't lie: Filipinos have the lowest reading comprehension among 79 countries (2019) with nearly four million youth (2017) out of school. Many are still considered illiterate: around 1 million pre-literate and 6 million illiterate, most of whom come from indigenous communities or those living below the poverty line. 

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Why aren't we reading? 

Plenty of factors contribute to this crisis in our literary scene. Perhaps one of the biggest is cost. Sadly, reading in the Philippines is an expensive hobby. Libraries are not as widely accessible as they are in other countries. Not only that, but close to 20 per cent of people in the Philippines also live below the poverty line, which means that around 17 million people have difficulty accessing basic necessities, much less books. In a 2017 survey commissioned by the National Book Development Board (NBDB), most Filipinos said they are only willing to spend around PHP199 or less on a printed book—a far cry from the current prices of the humble paperback, which can cost upwards of PHP500. 

But cost isn't the only barrier to reading. Another such hindrance is our language. The Philippines is a rich and diverse country with multiple major languages that include Bikol, Cebuano, Hiligaynon (Ilonggo), Ilokano, Kapampangan, Pangasinan, Tagalog, and Waray. In 2013, the Department of Education (DepEd) even began instructing schools to teach students in local languages, with the belief that "learners learn best when teachers use the mother tongue". Yet, very noticeably, most books, even by Filipino authors, are written in English, with less books being translated into either of the major Filipino languages. 

The Reading Culture

Before judging too harshly, it's important to take a look at the reading culture in the Philippines. The aforementioned survey commissioned by the NBDB shows a wealth of information regarding the literary scene in the Philippines, as perceived by a representative group of Filipinos. Interestingly enough, the survey done by the NBDB claims that Filipinos still read. This seems to be true, though it does not necessarily denote love or habit for reading as their only criteria on the survey was whether or not the respondents had read one (1) book in last 12 months. Most Filipinos (40.98 per cent of youth and 43.83 per cent of adults), as it turns out, also read to gain new knowledge, but only 22.50 per cent of youth and 19.49 per cent of adults read for leisure. 

The most popular genres for adult respondents are: the Bible, romance novels, short stories and picture books for children (presumably to be read with their own offspring), and almanacs or encyclopedias. There doesn't seem to be a huge majority who read other spellbinding genres such as fiction, sci-fi, horror, or the classics. 

In fact, romance books have topped literary charts in the Philippines for years. The fanbase of these flimsy and formulaic narratives is ever-growing and though many scoff at the genre, it's unfair to disregard it and its obvious popularity. These books embody many cultural values that Filipinos hold dear: from the masses' idea of romance to our perception of gender norms. Not only that, but many of these books are affordable—less than PHP100—and are also written in colloquial Tagalog which make these storylines easily accessible to many Filipinos. It's therefore unfair for literati to say that people here don't read—perhaps it's that Filipinos are simply given less choice in terms of what books are accessible to them. 

Stories are the stuff of life, whether they’re in songs, movies, the sermon, scripture, the stories we tell ourselves about our own personal identities and the identity of our society. We’ve been engaging with stories our whole lives.
Miguel Syjuco, Author

A Thirst For Information 

Despite not reading too widely across genres, it's obvious that Filipinos have a thirst for knowledge and information. We are the top consumers of social media and the Internet (despite the fact that we also have some of the slowest Internet connections around the world). As previously mentioned, most Filipinos read to gain new knowledge so it would be unfair in this situation to equate smartness to literacy. It seems as if our countrymen simply consume information through a different, more modern type of media. 

That's not to say that social media or the Internet is better than or worse off than other media platforms. Though misinformation spreads much quicker online, it also helps our countrymen stay on top of local news that might be relevant for them. And just because it's online doesn't mean it's not storytelling—Filipinos have a penchant for movies, TV shows, documentaries, and the like. Surely, reading isn't the only valuable type of art or media we have? 

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Final Thoughts

I love to read, and I wish people read more. I wish the government would invest more in public libraries or subsidise book costs—maybe then the general population would venture further across literary genres. But I'd also refrain from judging people too harshly if they aren't familiar with Tolstoy or Hawthorne. The fact of the matter is, reading just isn't as accessible to most Filipinos as smartphones and prepaid data. When you spend most of your time in traffic or at work (as plenty of Filipinos do), it's hard to find the time to enjoy a really good book, because unlike social media or the Internet, a good book requires focus before you really start to enjoy it. It's fun work, but it's not the work that everyone is able to put in. 

At the end of the day, reading has always been about storytelling, but storytelling isn't simply limited to reading. As Miguel Syjuco said in a previous Tatler interview: "Stories are the stuff of life, whether they’re in songs, movies, the sermon, scripture, the stories we tell ourselves about our own personal identities and the identity of our society. We’ve been engaging with stories our whole lives."

Read more: Ask The Expert: Miguel Syjuco On Literature, Honesty, And Why We Should Read More