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  • Why Make or Read Books?

    "Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body." (Ecclesiastes 12:12).

    Low-quality books tire the eyes and bore the mind. High-quality books stimulate creative and critical thinking. Low-quality books breed mere words, and in this case Ecclesiastes rightly says, "the more the words, the less the meaning, and how does that profit anyone?" (6:11).

    Ecclesiastes adds, "the fool multiplies words" (10:14). Sadly, there are rascals who make money from the mere multiplication of words, whether uttered or printed. I recall the advice of a contemplative person: "Speak only to improve the silence." Perhaps publishers and authors can appropriate such advice in this form: Publish and write primarily to deepen thought.

    We need books that deepen thought without sending people to sleep or boring them out of their lives. Unfortunately, there are books that dull one's wits or dwell on the same old thing. After reading them, one will agree with the sage of Ecclesiastes who concludes: "there is nothing new under the sun" (1:9).

    We need books that provoke deep thought without being esoteric or obscure. As there is no end of making many books, we ought to have better books and not just more books.

    Let us make and read good books primarily to stimulate critical thinking among our people. Critical thinking is a vital skill in the world today, when changes are swift. Perhaps it is the skill that contemporary Filipinos need most in order to secure a life of dignity in the family, in our society, and in the community of nations. Critical thinking is the missing partner of our people's innate adaptability to change.

    In the words of Patricia Licuanan: "Our flexibility, adaptability…is a strength that allows us to adjust to any set of circumstances and to make the best of the situation. But this ability to ‘play things by ear' leads us to compromise on the precision and discipline necessary to accomplish many work-oriented goals." When we learn to combine our bamboo-like flexibility with the skill to think critically, we can expect more sustainable accomplishments as a nation.

    To be a critical thinker, however, does not necessarily mean to be a scholar or to strive after book learning. To return to Ecclesiastes, it suggests that the ambitious striving after intellectual power ends only in the increase of pain and frustration.

    Today, we are realizing that the modern will to power-knowledge, or the modern will to be powerful through knowledge, leads to frustration in the long run. Since the 1970's, the iron will to achieve technical control over natural and social processes has demonstrated that it is a power that is prohibitive, compulsive, and potentially cataclysmic. Martial law, for example, was a dictator's exercise of an iron will to modernize our country.

    The average person today is coming to realize that modern systems like science and technology, capitalism, and the nation-state are producing problems and uncertainties that are as grave as, or probably graver than, the problems they have solved. There is a growing perception that our modern institutions are manufacturing high-consequence risks such as global poverty and economic polarization, long-term ecological catastrophes, totalitarian tendencies within nation-states, and the threat of wars that use weapons of mass destruction.

    We are living in a risky new world, where risks are hazards that are actively monitored in relation to future possibilities. The uncertainties and risks that confront contemporary persons are effects of the explosion of power-knowledge, the explosion of a variety of expertise. Instead of a state of affairs wherein more expert knowledge means more control over history, today more expert knowledge means fresh sources of the unpredictable.

    Ecclesiastes reminds us that the only thing predictable in human history is transience. This book opens as follows: "The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem: ‘Transient! Transient!' says the Teacher. ‘Utterly transient! Everything is transient'"(1:1).

    The book of Ecclesiastes clearly suggests that its narrator is Solomon, the wisest and wealthiest king in the Jewish tradition. The book portrays Solomon in his old age, or shortly before his death, speaking to an audience who might be his sons or the sons of his nobles.

    Ecclesiastes was written in Hebrew by a Jewish sage living in Jerusalem, probably near the end of the 4th century or at the beginning of the 3rd century BCE. By that time, Solomon's magnificent palace and temple had been destroyed, his possessions and wealth were gone, and his lands and descendants had fallen under the rule of foreign kings. None of Solomon's works had remained, except perhaps the proverbs and teachings that had been attributed to him.

    The aged Solomon reminds us that every human work or product is "breath"; whatever we do or produce is transient. Because everything is transient, many men especially rulers throughout history have been obsessed with producing something that endures, something that would enable them to live beyond the grave at least in human memory.

    Some rulers produce big buildings and monuments. They acquire an "edifice complex." Some men produce many children with different women. Such potent men are deep down scared of death. Some intellectuals and some pseudo-intellectuals produce books in the hope that they would be in libraries forever or at least become footnotes in future books.

    Human life is transient, and the aged Solomon asserts that human beings who strive for immortality through their works will be unhappy. It is impossible to gain immortality through striving. It is impossible to grasp, to hold, to keep in your hand the vital Spirit, for the Spirit is grace and is not the fruit of one's work. To try to hold the Spirit is absurd, a chasing after the wind. Human efforts to achieve a perpetual memorial are doomed to failure and frustration. As the aged Solomon puts it: "As a man comes, so he departs, and what does he gain since he tries to hold the spirit? All his days he eats in darkness, with great frustration, affliction and anger" (Ecclesiastes 5:16-17).

    If everything is transient, what should book-lovers and publishers do? At the very least, there ought to be no time to waste on a bad book, whether for reading or publishing. A 19th-cenury English author and art critic, John Ruskin, aptly remarked, "Life being very short, and the quiet hours of it few, we ought to waste none of them in reading valueless books. "A lifetime is never enough to read all the great books of the world. Why then spend even a week or two on valueless books?

    Since life is short and death is sure, it would be better to spend time on a shared meal, eating joyfully and drinking merrily, in the cozy company of persons we love. This is the wisdom practised by many of our poor, as they have seen their kith and kin die before their time. For the sons of the soil and the daughters of the dumpsite, life is often "nasty, brutish, and short."

    While so much poverty persists, one still meets middle-class persons who work hard primarily because of their envy of the rich. One also meets wealthy persons who are still not contented with their wealth, and some endlessly work to accumulate more wealth even though none of them knows anymore the answer to the question "for whom am I working?"

    In the midst of such absurdity, the following advice from the aged Solomon is excellent: "Go eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for it is now that God favors what you do….Enjoy life with your beloved, all the days of this transient life that God has given you under the sun—all your transient days. For this is your lot in life and in your toil under the sun" (Ecclesiastes 9:7-9).

    Since life is short, and death is sure, why still read a book? I believe that reading a great book can give us moments of eternity or instances when future and past are fused and made present through striking texts and images. A great book can help us experience the inseparability of time and eternity or what has been called tempiternity.

    Tempiternity is the experience of the present as irreducible. The tempiternal present is not a moment separate from the future and the past, but is the simultaneous coming of the future and the past in the present, the interplay of the future and the past in the here and now. Tempiternity is not timelessness but the fullness of time in a moment, as each moment can be experienced as a unique gift, complete in itself, and containing the whole universe. Did not the poet William Blake speak of seeing "the world in a grain of sand and eternity in a flower"?

    Tempiternity can be experienced in reading not only religious and literary works but also scientific texts. In my case, I have had eternal moments or moments of wonder from reading essays on sociology, palaeontology, and evolutionary biology.

    I hope that more publishers will offer to the public different kinds of books that can provide moments of wonder to readers, not only because of the quality of the content but also because of the quality of the design, the paper, the printing, the binding and all other elements that go into the production of a good book.

    Let me end with these lines from Ecclesiastes: "There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot…a time to mourn and a time to dance…a time to be silent and a time to speak" (3:1-7). Now, more than ever, is the time to speak about making and readi ng good books.

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