Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Another Inconvenient Truth

Another Inconvenient Truth

By Rick Olivares

I think that you have the attention span of a glass of water!

Okay, now that I have your attention, I can safely assume that you read my opening line.

Just some food for thought here…

When I was working in advertising as a copy writer, there was a clash of schools of thought in the ads we did: the life’s too short to ready body copy, and leave no blank spaces and fill it up with copy. The former is the Western way of using imagery and snazzy one-liners to reel in the target audience while the latter was the so-called Binondo way of advertising.

So let me get this straight, if a picture is worth a thousand words then why is hard for people today to express themselves, think coherently, or even write well-thought out pieces?

The Philippine Daily Inquirer is said to be the top-selling newspaper in the country. But what exactly is its circulation? A 150,000 copies a day?

We’re a nation of 82 million (the ADB claims we’ve already hit the century mark in the millions) and only 150,000 supposedly have access to it? Even if you add up the dozens of other broadsheets and tabloids then you scrape just a little over a million.

So where do people get their news? Television, radio, the internet, texting (God forbid).

And did you know that 93% of all elementary students come from public schools with libraries that carry material that is several decades old?

No wonder our country is so backward. We’re still living in the past.

As a writer, I owe much to reading books.

In fact, writing, for me, was a result of an accident. As a youngster, I was obsessed with art and sports. My first ever published work was for the Ateneo Grade School publication, The Eaglet, and it is something that I didn’t even pen. My best friend added my name to the credits and so my name got printed. I do have a copy of it.

In fourth year high school, I crammed one time for an essay and when I got it back it had been marked it red ink with an “F.” There was a note attached to it that said, “See the Prefect of Discipline.” Puzzled, I asked her why and she told me that there was no way that someone my age could write something like that and I must have plagiarized it. I told her that I only wrote it some 10 minutes before class and that if she verified the veracity of what I wrote she would find out that nothing was factual. I had completely fabricated everything. She changed my grade to an “A+” and I never let her forget that.

That was when I had inkling that I could write some.

Nowadays, because of writing I get a ton of assignments and opportunities and one of the most frequently asked questions of me is, “where did I learn to write like that?”

Before I answer that, let me just say that all the opportunities and accolades that have come my way are flattering. And I must say that there are many more others out there who are better than I am and who I look up to. Nevertheless, I am most grateful.

Back to the question -- the answer to that is the sum of several factors. The first of which is advertising that completely changed my verbose and highbrow style to something more with a hook that reels the reader in. The second is because of a myriad of experiences that I am able to communicate and translate to my topics. And the last one is simply because of reading.

And reading has a lot to do with my skill. My father thought that I read too many comic books as a kid and that I needed to expand my horizons. So he forced me to read the newspaper and he would give me pop quizzes at home to check if I was I was in tune with the day’s reports.

I must admit that I hated it and my dad plummeted in the Father of the Year polls. When I didn’t understand something I read, his reply was, “look it up in the dictionary or encyclopedia.” That was his way of teaching me to be resourceful. It was something I didn’t understand then but today, I thank him for that because it has really helped in my mania for research and detail.

Nowadays, resourcefulness is wikipedia and googling things and cutting and pasting them with re-writes here and there. One Ateneo professor told me that their way of checking if reports were plagiarized was to paste it and google it.

Ah, the price of progress.

I also read Reader’s Digest and took the Word Power tests with all the seriousness of a school exam. After a while, my parents didn’t need to prod, threaten, or bribe me to read.

The first ever books that I purchased were using the money that was given to me after my graduation from grade school. In the blissful summer between elementary and secondary school, I purchased JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy (the 60th anniversary of their publication). They collectively cost PhP 75 then and that was quite a princely sum. But it was money well spent and it did much to expand my horizons. Tolkien’s masterpiece was my gateway to new world. Soon, I began buying books as much as I did vinyl records since music was a huge passion.

From comic books to newspapers to hardbound novels to advertising and design collections, reading has become a staple of my life. I devoured books and I saw it change my way of thinking, the way I wrote, and my thought process.

Today reading is still an indelible part of my life. I read everything from biographies to sports to science fiction to design to fiction and non-fiction. When I learned about the influences and inspirations of certain writers, I checked them out and that took me into different genres further widening my tastes and knowledge.

Whenever I travel, I always make it a point to visit the local bookstores. In fact, I can spend hours inside a bookstore and not get bored. It was comedian Jerry Seinfeld who once said that bookstores and books were proof that man today was still thinking and I wholeheartedly agree.

New York Times’ columnist George Vescey once told me that the day of the newspaper disappearing from the newstands is fast approaching because of the convenience of the internet. That might be true of newspapers but for books, although there was the same initial apprehension, it has not proven to be true. In fact, it is still thriving.

While reading, I always make it a point to jot down interesting passages for future reference and after sometime, I re-read the books because I understand things more after the second serving. It’s like a movie, you’re initially dazzled by everything and tend to miss out some of the subtle nuances but the second serving makes you more aware of a lot of other things that go on.

I’d say that reading is the most inexpensive ticket to visit foreign lands, meet new people, and experience the unknown. I only used to read about the New York Yankees and Yankee Stadium and later in my life, I had the chance to live in New York and cheer for my favorite sports team. Bill Carter’s book, Fools Rush In that recounted his experiences in war-torn Bosnia and it greatly helped in the end of the war. Through my writing, my own corner of the world, I try to change things and the way people think rather than look at the big picture because it will drive me only to frustration. Reading the late David Halberstam’s books taught me how to look at the world around us and how they influence events that happen or people who are a product of the times. Nick Hornby and Marc Spitz I read because they understood the awkwardness of growing up in the manner of a JD Salinger. I identified because they always found a way to infuse their love of music into their writings.

To this day, those Filipino literature stories I read as a grade school student have left an indelible imprint in my mind’s eye: Manuel Arguilla’s How My Brother Leon Brought Home A Wife, Rogelio Sikat’s Impeng Negro, and NVM Gonzalez’ The Bamboo Dancers among many others. In recent years, I have sought to add the grade school reading books to my collection and for my children to read.

Books have a life of their own and can come away impacting people and the way they think and view things.

It has been said that the New York Times is several ounces of paper yet has the power to change the world. That is the power of the printed word and the effect of reading.

In this day of digital technology that has further limited attention spans of the young, it is always good to get people to pick up an actual newspaper or book and to read it. The traditional way of getting people to read is still the best method. The Department of Education says that of the 82 million plus Filipinos living today, there are over 11 million who are illiterate. That’s 13.1% of the population. Of the remainder, there’s another whopping number that doesn’t finish school.

When Mr. Chito Tagaysay of the AHON Foundation and Filway Marketing Inc. asked me if I could help out in promoting their mission and partnership with NGO’s that work for the education of our impoverished masses, I readily said yes. I’ve always believed that education aside from sports, is the great equalizer. And reading plays a huge part in education and in the young’s formative years. Their undertaking is by no means easy but nothing in life is.

And so I wrote this essay on the importance of reading with the hope that you will do your part in promoting its importance. If you’d like to take it a step further, if it’s not too much, maybe you’d like to help out the AHON Foundation. They along with millions of other Filipinos could sure use it.

Thank you very much and keep reading.

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