The Manila International Book Fair has always been a family tradition.
For the past couple of years, I would set aside some time to bring my mom to the SMX Convention Center. It used to be our date; our maternal bonding. For I know that books are her passion. She gives them away as presents, especially to kids at Christmas. At times, she just wants to be in the presence of tomes - searching for academic references she could add to her personal library.
I let her indulge.
This year was different.
I thought of bringing a guy date for a change. Someone, who reads books more than I do. The date confessed he hasn't been to a book fair before. The revelation spurred an idea. It was an invitation I dangled, but something I haven't spoken. He hasn't told me when he is free, and I was running out of time. In the end, I decided to go to the Book Fair alone.
I'd rather not have company.
I told my boss that I was sick. That I was too weak to get out of bed. But the truth was far from my pronouncements. While my team was trying to earn a living, I was at the gym, doing push-ups and lunges. The work-out was so intense that I've only managed to get to the Mall of Asia after sundown. On my phone was a Word Document listing all the kids I needed to buy presents.
With cash on hand, I was geared for some guiltless book hunting.
But the moment I stepped foot inside the exhibit hall, I immediately felt the pangs of emptiness. Washed away was the thrill, when it used to be me and my mother doing the rounds. I had no one to show my loot; the bargains I rummaged from going around the exhibit booths. I had no one to remind that someone is overspending; that we no longer have space at home to stack the booty.
Disconsolation had set it and I have yet to buy something. I had names, but I was unable to decide what presents to give. I wandered aimlessly. Blamed myself for the confusion. The exhibit hall appeared alien to me and the books seemed not to matter. It was only when I caught glimpse of the children's crafts and remembered Bentusi's children did I find my ground.
And so I began shopping.
I think of the children every time I go book hunting. It is because books were my companions when I was growing up. And even though I wasn't able to nurture the affinity, and that I didn't like getting books on Christmas, I wish not to deny someone the same chances that I had. Literacy is a gift a kid deserves to receive. And these days, when everyone scrambles to buy everything save for that one thing that enriches the mind, I go the opposite direction, hailing letters as the savior of mankind.
Still, little has changed at how the book fair is being run. Articles of religion dominate the convention. The retailers occupy the biggest spaces, with local publishing houses forced in cramped corners. The assortment of books too, didn't get better. Inspirational and self-help genres outnumber the short stories, studies and poems written by Filipino authors.
The best-sellers remain those published abroad.
It was a soulless expedition that leads me to question, not only my misguided decision to go solo, but also the future of book publishing and book reading in the country. Will we let stateside writers overwhelm us with their works? When will support for local writers come? With so many self-help and inspirational readings available, why are people still lonely? What is truth and happiness when everyone has a take on it?
I left the convention center with less loot than I used to bring home in the past. No mention of my visit came out of my mouth and the evidence, I left hidden inside my unused closet. Realizing also that the kids who used to receive books from me are growing up, and it might be more practical to give presents that they can actually use, maybe the next time I return to the Book Fair, I would merely hum the melodies of nostalgia, or simply get books for my enjoyment.
Before I left home that afternoon.
"Mama may pera ka?" I looked at her inquisitively. In my head, I would just tell her to give me some cash so I can buy her the books she would give as presents.
"Meron naman, bakit?"
"Book Fair ngayon." I said. I didn't look at her in the eye. "Hanggang Sunday na lang kaya pupunta na ako."
"Uy kelan tayo puwede? Taon taon tayo nagdadate dun ah!"
"Not sure, may work ako eh." I paused for a bit.
"Sunday siguro, kung available ka." I said at last.
"Sige Sunday. Punta tayo."