(Originally written in Filipino two years ago today)
Reading is a vital part of my life. So much so that it’s a requirement when choosing friends. It has become a standard that if somebody doesn’t read, there is a 30% chance that friendship is off the table.
I grew up not doing anything but read.
There are no bookstores where I grew up in a dainty little barangay in Moncada, Tarlac. Unlike the other kids who grew up with Nancy Drew, I grew up with local comics.
Our family owns a News Stand, the lone news stand in our town back in the day. We are woken up at 2am-3am every day because of the loud thump of newspapers and comics being thrown over our gate and into our doorstep.
One of the many stashes whenever National Bookstore goes out with its annual crazy factory sale.
Before our aunts could even start cooking our breakfast, I would be outside, a 5 year old skinny little girl carrying all the comics for that day, splattering it onto the floor of our Sala, never knowing where to start.
My favorite friends in the morning were Tomas and Kulas from Funny Komiks; Utleg from Happy Komiks. But they were always never enough. The strips were always short and soon enough, I would find myself reading adult comics, aware that there are scenes not suitable for children, but I needed to read more.
I would eventually have the sense to put down those comics, scandalized by some images and lines. So I began to pick up a newspaper. I would read Abante and Bulgar because I didn’t understand English.
One of the happiest moments of my childhood was when they finally put out Children’s Comics: all in short story form, going up to 5 pages, front and back, per story.
And there were always new stories every week. I was ecstatic.
I first saw my name on print when I was Grade 1. I wrote a letter to Children’s Comics on a scented stationery and one school day on my way home, asked my tricycle service to pass by the Post Office so I could mail it. They would publish it one month after.
Reading an abridgement of “A midsummer night dream” by
the windowsill in William Shakepeare’s home In Stratford-upon-Avon in Britain.
I remember in Grade 4 when our teachers gave us a thick textbook for Pagbasa (Reading). A collection of maybe 50 stories to read for the whole year. I read them all in a month.
I told myself, “thank God for new friends.”
One day I went through the stuff of my older cousin who was then in College. I found a book called “Kuwaderno,” a collection of literary pieces of writers from St. Louis University in Baguio where she was studying.
But I didn’t understand a thing, even though they were all in Filipino.
I tried to ask myself, like what my teachers always ask us, “what is the lesson?” I was stumped to find there was none, or none that i can see.
I read that over and over, frustrated that I couldn’t understand what it was trying to tell me. And then I realized that as in all other things, reading has its levels. And that maybe I needed to move on from my School Textbook to get to another level.
We were living in Britain then, in 2001, I was 11 and I saw the Harry Potter books in a shelf at Ottakar’s, the bookstore I frequented in Stevenage, Hertfordshire.
Before that I have seen Philosopher’s Stone so I decided to buy Chamber of Secrets and start with that instead.
I was amazed by the storytelling and happy that my Grade School craving for lessons were satisfied, and in magical ways no less.
Books I have yet to finish or read coming into 2015
I was 11 when I realized that one of the true beauties of reading is that it enables you to imagine a world that’s not there. Everytime I rode a train I would imagine and wish it would lead me to Diagon Alley.
When I wasn’t reading Harry Potter, I was at our small school library, reading the collection of famous British children’s books writer, Jacqueline Wilson. I started with “Dustbin Baby,” the story of April who, when she was born, was left in a dustbin by her mother. When she turned fourteen, she spent her birthday finding her way into that dustbin, trying to understand why her mother didn’t want her.
The story seemed sad, but the storytelling was amusing. So I read another: “Bed and Breakfast Star,” the story of a girl named Elsa who was living in a dirty hotel cum bed and breakfast. Another was “The Tracy Beaker Show,” an orphan who couldn’t get a family to like her enough to adopt her.
The beauty of dog ears.
They were all sad stories of children, and looking back I think that reading those books were part of why I grew up with very low emotional quotient. I was taught by books at a very young age that it is okay to be sad, that there is no challenge to happiness. I would believe this more as I grew up and especially when I read Filipino poet Rebecca Añonuevo’s works, she said: Mahirap isulat ang kaligayahan (it’s difficult to write happiness.)
These books also taught me that, like its protagonists, I should learn to tread through life just by myself, to not need anybody else.
I read more books after Jacqueline Wilson. I cried over the death of Cedric Diggory, learned my first concepts of romantic love with Leo and Stargirl in Jerry Spinelli’s Stargirl. I had nightmares over Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. It was also when I was reading Dan Brown when I was 16 that my cousin sat me down to talk to me about my faith.
I think the most crucial period of my love affair with books was when I started to read young adult authors like Jerry Spinelli and Meg Cabot. It was from them that I learned that it’s okay to be different.
I didn’t want to be pretty and popular. I just wanted to be myself, however weird and different.
J.K Rowling published the last of the Harry Potter Books when I was a Sophomore in College at the University of Santo Tomas.
During this time, I was full of insecurities, dealing day in day out with doubts of whether I had the workings to become a Journalist. I would often wonder whether I was just kidding myself.
And then I read Deathly Hallows and read this: “Of course it’s all in your head, Harry, but it doesn’t mean it’s not real.”
I felt like Professor Dumbledore spoke directly to me; that yes, I may be way over my head to think that my dreams will ever come true, but it doesn’t mean they can’t.
From 11 years old to being an 18-year-old student, it was still Dumbledore who got me through.
And then I met Holden Caulfield in J.D Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye.” My Journalism teacher once said that Catcher should only be read when you’re a teenager, more years on you and you wouldn’t understand it anymore, he said.
But I understood Holden: it’s not easy to be lonely.
When I graduated, I went through a 6-month depression bout. I cried every night. I walked under the sweltering heat of the sun along Ayala Avenue in Makati with nowhere to go. I would hold my rosary tight, desperate for answers: Why was I sad???
One night I just felt numb, I didn’t feel anything. I was reading Paulo Coelho’s Zahir and came across this line: “I was not I – I was nothing, and that to me seemed quite marvelous.”
That night, I didn’t cry.
On one of my best friend and I’s endless trips to Fullybooked, I picked up a book called “Prep” by a writer called Curtis Sittenfeld. The character’s name was Lee Fiora and she could as well been have based on myself. She liked to psychoanalyze, covered head to toe with insecurities and made self pity her favorite hobby. At last I started to understand myself.
I would meet John Green and Stephen Chbosky next. Miles in Green’s “Looking for Alaska” and Charlie in Chbosky’s “Perks of being a Wallflower” would become my shrinks, mirroring a nasty party of myself I wasn’t willing to confront.
It is never easy to be lonely. But it’s also never bad. The lesson: whatever happens, you wouldn’t be sad all your life.
Loneliness, these friends taught me, was temporary.
I get by with a little help from my friends
I have many friends, most of them have the same intense love affair with books, but I never found it easy to tell them everything, especially if in fear of not being understood.
Or maybe sometimes, in fear of saying some issues out loud, when you have not admitted them to yourself: Is there a place in the world for you? Will your dreams ever come true? Will somebody ever love you? Are you just kidding yourself?
There are too many questions. And ever since I was 5 years old, the answers only ever came from friends in my books.
Some people find their answers by truly living: by meeting people, by falling in love, by experiencing the world outside of the pages.
But people are different. Had I searched for answers outside of my books, I would have probably ended more confused.
I have not found all the answers yet. The beauty in reading is that as you get answers along the way, you would also have more questions.
And isn’t that why you are alive, to continue to ask questions?
Another attempt at book spine poetry
Maybe it was wrong to have depended so much of my growing up on books. I started to doubt love and its concept of forever when I found out in Rachel Cohn and David Levithan’s second book that Nick and Norah broke up. Nick and Norah — no infinity, what a disaster.
Sometimes I justify my anger towards the world with books like Ned Vizzini’s, I justify my lack of faith with characters such as Sylvia Plath’s Esther Greenwood; my belief that the world is unfair was affirmed by Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre.
But I also learned to love my parents because of Mitch Albom, and learned the value of friendship through the many characters, Ron, Harry and Hermione being the best examples.
And in reading, I learned to write, which is what I love most.
In Tom Rachman’s “The Imperfectionists,” I also learned that my life doesn’t stop at my job, no matter how much I love it.
The most important thing in reading is that I never felt I was alone, whether I was sad or happy, enlightened or confused, I always had someone who I knew understood just exactly what I was going through.
How often do you meet someone like that in real life?
And books stay forever. No matter how long you are disconnected for, when you open the pages once again, looking for someone to talk to, they are always there, have not changed a bit, ears and hearts wide open to listen.
How amazing is that?
Book by the beach