A SOJOURNER’S VIEW: Where have all the bookworms gone?

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 25 January) – A prior question first: where has this word – bookworm – gone? It has been ages since I heard someone use this word or read it in anything I have been reading. But while watching Martin Scorsese’s Pretend it is a City!, his Netflix series of inter-action in New York with Fran Lebowitz – the writer, humorist and raconteur – the word erupted right out of the blues! At one point, the irrepressible Lebowitz referred to herself as a helpless bookworm! Lebowitz famously wrote these lines: “Think before you speak. Read before you think.”

I did wonder how this word – which used to be an essential part of our vocabulary in college – had disappeared from our everyday use. If one was referred to as a bookworm in the 1960s, the student wore it as a badge of honor. Being seen regularly in the library to borrow books was seen by most professors as an indicator of an outstanding student.

But as the age of Gen X shifted to the millennial age, somehow the word has almost become extinct. Thus the question: where have all the bookworms gone? One almost think of these people as part of the planet’s endangered species. I had written an essay some time ago – and if memory serves me right, it was also published here in MindaNews – that at airports, one hardly anymore sees any waiting passenger holding a book, reading to wait for his/her flight.

It didn’t matter if it was not a book, but a computer that has a copy of a book. So long as the passenger reads! But no, there isn’t a soul in sight, except me reading a book. Everyone else is holding a cellphone or a small computer inter-acting with social media or watching a film! And most probably it is a Korean telenovela. (I have nothing against Korean telenovela, by the way! Earlier it was those Mexican telenovela, that like the bookworms, have disappeared.)

One is only assured that the world has not given up reading when one is out there in the West, riding trains or waiting at terminals and see people reading. But even then, their numbers are not as numerous as before, as more of their own citizens are also hooked on those gadgets.

One is really tempted to embrace what is the inevitable: bookworms will go the way of home-baked pastries, hi-fi turntables, tape recorders, the black-and-white TV sets. They do not really disappear from the planet, as there are fringes in urban centers where connoisseurs manage to find a niche to make sure these are still available.

The situation has not reached that point as dramatized by the American writer Ray Bradbury (1953) in his novel – Fahrenheit 451 – which presented a future American society where books are outlawed and firemen burn any that are found. There are shades of this in authoritarian, dictatorial regimes where some books are listed as subversive and are burned. No there is still no burning of books on a mass scale, but what is as bad is how we are ignoring the books.

Current developments are not helping to reverse the tide. When the pandemic appeared on the world stage, the ensuing lockdown meant libraries and second-hand stores selling cheaper books got closed. While of course, one can still access books online, there is still nothing like the experience of entering a library or browsing through a really well-stocked bookstore (ala the Last BookStore in downtown L.A. which is – wow! – a whole world of books!!!).

But we count our blessings where they still come our way from the heavens courtesy of generous friends who remember gifts of books during the Christmas season! And we thank brave publishers (willing to take risks) and writers (willing to go on sleepless nights) to still publish books – both fiction and non-fiction – that allow the remaining bookworms to fully enjoy the delights of reading!

Note what this joy is all about from some of your friendly authors:

“Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.” ―Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

“To acquire the habit of reading is to construct for yourself a refuge from almost all the miseries of life.” ―W. Somerset Maugham, Books and You

“A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading.” ―William Styron, Conversations with William Styron

“I am eternally grateful for my knack of finding in great books, some of them very funny books, reason enough to feel honored to be alive, no matter what else might be going on.” ―Kurt Vonnegut, Timequake

“Literature is my Utopia. Here I am not disenfranchised. No barrier of the senses shuts me out from the sweet, gracious discourses of my book friends. They talk to me without embarrassment or awkwardness.” ―Helen Keller, The Story of My Life

“You must write, and read, as if your life depended on it.” ―Adrienne Rich, What is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics

Bookworms, unite! You have nothing to lose but the threat that, one day, all the books – along with the bookworms – will go the way of other endangered species in the forests brutally decimated by logging and mining and the disasters caused by climate change!

[MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Redemptorist Brother Karl Gaspar is a professor at St. Alphonsus Theological and Mission Institute (SATMI) in Davao City and until recently, a professor of Anthropology at the Ateneo de Davao University. Gaspar is author of several books, including “Manobo Dreams in Arakan: A People’s Struggle to Keep Their Homeland,” which won the National Book Award for social science category in 2012, “Desperately Seeking God’s Saving Action: Yolanda Survivors’ Hope Beyond Heartbreaking Lamentations,” two books on Davao history, and “Ordinary Lives, Lived Extraordinarily – Mindanawon Profiles” launched in February 2019. He writes two columns for MindaNews, one in English (A Sojourner’s Views) and the other in Binisaya (Panaw-Lantaw). Gaspar is a Datu Bago 2018 awardee, the highest honor the Davao City government bestows on its constituents.]