JULY 21, 2007 will go down in history as the day when thousands of avid readers flocked various bookstores as early as seven in the morning to grab their copies of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the final installment of the much-loved series written by J.K. Rowling. According to reliable sources, the last book of the Harry Potter series has sold more than 33,000 copies in the Philippines on its first week of release, and that is just from one leading bookstore. Overall, the Harry Potter series has collectively sold more than 325 million copies worldwide, making author J.K. Rowling one of the richest people in the world.

This scenario is in sharp contrast with the local literary scene.

Easily the most read Filipino author based on the number of books sold each year, Bob Ong continues to be on top of the local bestsellers list, selling more than 50,000 copies of his books in 2006. His books are followed by Filipino romance novels and PSICOM Publishing’s True Philippine Ghost Stories. The Palanca-winning novels, such as Dean Alfar’s Salamanca and Vicente Garcia Groyon’s The Sky Over Dimas, can be found nowhere in the list.

Will Philippine literature ever reach such great heights as what the Harry Potter series has achieved?

To say that Filipinos are not a reading public would be a fallacy. The sales of Harry Potter, and even Ong’s books, show that people read. But why is it that Filipino writers still face the lack of readership?

Foreign books, like Harry Potter, get hyped up in other countries before reaching the Philippines, thus making us interested in reading them. Remember how the controversial Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown effortlessly rose to the top of the bestsellers list? It sold 75,000 copies in a span of six months. On the other hand, Philippine literary books almost never get the publicity that foreign books seem to enjoy.

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The social realist themes tackled in local books may also be a contributing factor to the lack of readership. Ong’s books, for example, focus on popular culture, attacking it with an almost sardonic humor, making it appealing to the youth. It is something that is seldom seen in Philippine literary books nowadays. Whereas, the critically-acclaimed ones do not get the readership that they deserve because of its heavy social themes, a far cry from the romance and ghost stories that the Filipinos apparently read.

Is it the public’s fault that they settle for “lighter” and “less intellectual” reading rather than those that discuss the problems our society face? Or is it high time for our writers to adapt to the fancies of their audience? Although it is not wrong to get swept away by flying brooms and ghost stories, I do not think that readers should settle for these kinds of stories that bring chill to the senses but no substance to the mind, and detach the readers from being grounded into reality. Depressing as the world may seem, how could we solve the problems of society if we refused to even acknowledge them?

Poetry performances, which are getting pretty popular, are good ways to hype up the ailing local literary scene, however insignificant its effect may seem. For if Filipinos themselves do not read their own literature, then who will?

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The 28th Manila International Book Fair will run on August 29 to September 2 at the World Trade Center. The fact that this book fair has succeeded for 28 years is a living proof that all is not lost for the cause of wider readership. Let us bring the culture of reading back into our consciousness by supporting this.

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