A reader lives a thousand lives

That most memorable quote spoken by Jojen in George R.R. Martin’s hit series A Game of Thrones in its entirety: “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.” Jojen was the powerful and natural-born “greenseer”, and could receive glimpses of the past, present and future in visions.

You’d be lucky and happy if you’re a reader, cooped up in one place for more than six weeks since the lockdown started. If you’re a reader, you would be living not in just one place, but in a thousand places. You could be roaming the earth, conversing with a thousand people. Of course that’s an exaggeration and in the past six weeks, I probably have been living only in a handful of places and conversing with about a dozen people.

Martin’s quote most probably was inspired by Joyce Carol Oates: “Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul.”

It’s not always fun, of course: after reading about 50 pages of Viet Than Nguyen’s best-selling The Sympathizer, I felt claustrophobic as if I — or rather the narrator, a young Vietnamese fleeing the fall of Saigon with his family — was still in that goddamn, crowded airport full of panicking, fleeing pro-United States sympathizers.

Some of my ‘thousand lives.’

Read Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (or be lazy and just watch the movie) and after reading it, you’ll be so happy that your biggest problem now is how to get a haircut during this lockdown. Such is the magic of books that even a science fiction story can make you so depressed, you see your little life as such a wonder.

Knowledge
I owe being a reader to my parents. My father’s favorite quote was “Knowledge is power” and my first memories of childhood was playing in the empty shelves of his library. My mother was a high school history teacher who brought home her books.

The Ateneo High School’s Jesuit teachers taught me to understand the secret language of poems and plod through hard-to-read English novels, encouraged by Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The high school and college libraries were my happy refuge that, to this day, I still sometimes dream that I was browsing through them. I should also thank my station in life, which was at the lowest middle-class tier, that made enjoyment from books from the library the only thing affordable to me.

It’s not just reading fiction that allows you to “live a thousand lives” through the writer’s power to make you imagine worlds, so much so that, you slip as Oates put it, into his soul.

Carl Sagan’s Cosmos puts you in the amazing mind of this scientist as he explores, well of course, the cosmos and its wonders. Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion practically takes you on a trip through the eons since man stared at the heavens, heard thunder and saw lighting, and in his fear invented the Deity.

Thomas Piketty’s Capital and Ideology (what I’m reading, rather, struggling to read now) brings me to vast archives and libraries to realize one depressing reality: Since medieval times to this day, just five percent at most of human beings control most of the world’s wealth. The corollary that hits you: the earth has been a vale of tears and a hell for homo sapiens except for a very few who called themselves the nobility in ancient times, now capitalists. The tremendous power of religion, that book shows, is due to the fact that it makes people accept such a horrific state of affairs.

We take for granted this thing called a book, the greatest invention of mankind. Books are what makes us what we are, as a book transmits to you the knowledge painstakingly accumulated over thousands of years. With books, we become the heir in our very short lives to the insights and hard work of 300 generations that lived in the past 6,000 years.

It was the invention of the Gutenberg printing press in the 15th century that began the process to make books what they are now: available to any human being, or at least its elite with enough education.

That was the beginning of the end of the monopoly enjoyed by the clergy, that only they had access to the Truth as it was solely the monasteries (at least in Western civilization) that “published” books, that is, reproduced these through the very tedious process of copying these by hand. Only the clergy for a long time after all, understood what the books said, as these were all in Latin (or Greek), which the masses, almost by definition, couldn’t understand.

Monopoly
The clergy’s monopoly was so powerful that, to this day, the result of their tampering with the manuscripts still fool many people, as in the case of a cleric who inserted glowing lines (“a wise man”) about “Jesus” in Flavius Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews, written 90 AD.

Christians to this day claim this proves Jesus existed. Scholars, though, have incontestably shown that the lines were inserted by a monk who was copying by hand the Antiquities. “Fake news” has a medieval pedigree.

It is sad, though, that for most Filipinos, I think, books are something you read simply to get the required knowledge and skills for you to earn a living, something you stop doing when you’ve finished college.

This is the kind of book-reading the novelist Gustave Flaubert (author of Madame Bovary, banned purportedly for its obscenity) condemned: “Do not read, as children do, to amuse yourself, or like the ambitious, for the purpose of instruction. No, read in order to live.”

It is sadder that reading here hasn’t become something routine as in most developed countries, especially if an educated (or literate) citizenry is after all the real strength of any nation. After all, how can we hope to be a great nation when our people spend their leisure time watching silly game shows and telenovelas.

I haven’t lived in another developing country, but in the US, Japan and Greece where I stayed for months, what struck my attention and interest is that you see people from all walks of life reading books while they wait for the bus, in the train, or having coffee. Books sold in bookstores in Japan and Greece are mostly in their national language — ensuring that even ordinary people can read them — and even fiction bestsellers are translated as quickly as they are published abroad.

Here the epitome of books stores in my generation, the National Book Store chain, has basically become stationery stores, with many of their branches having just two — two, can you imagine! — shelves with books, tucked in a dark corner of the store.

Thank God for real bookstores like Popular Book Store, La Solidaridad and Fully Booked, although I don’t know why they haven’t gone online as Amazon very successfully did, would you believe, 26 years ago. These three booksellers should read a few of the books they sell.

Politicians
Our politicians of yesteryears were avid readers. My office in Malacañang when I worked there was President Ferdinand Marcos’ private quarters. He had there a huge shelf of books on different topics, from occult books like Madame Blavasky’s The Secret Doctrine, to Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents. (I remember since truth to tell, I had planned on filching them, but never got around to doing it.) Juan Ponce Enrile is such a book addict that recent photos of him show him reading a book using a magnifying glass.

Journalists on the beat in my generation almost always had a pocketbook tucked in their back-pockets (as Bulletin editor Jun Icban does to this day does) or cuddling a hardcover, as Yen Makabenta and Kit Tatad did. Watch CNN as their reporters report from their homes because of the coronavirus pandemic; there are almost always a shelf of books behind them. Here it’s a blank wall or a hallway.

A development that is killing book reading is of course social media, which doesn’t slip you inside the best minds and writers of humanity but mostly merely give you snippets of information and ideas and displays of emotions — which however entertains you so much you spend enormous amounts of time on them. One young anti-Duterte lady in her Facebook post even demonstrated the height of her level of discourse, that was a regression to an era before the word was invented: the dirty finger gesture. I don’t think she lives a fourth of a life.


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