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papa osmubal
oscar balajadia WHERE WOULD would you put books in Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of human needs?

Maslow conceptualized a ladder-like hierarchy or pyramid of human needs wherein at the bottommost tier are the most basic or the most urgent, hence arguably the most important, needs. The bottommost is the first rung that leads to the next, then to the next, until the ascent gets to the topmost. Without satisfying the lowermost need/s, there is no way one can reach the apex of the pyramid. That is a given. That is how it has to flow and that flow should not by any means be discomfited. Food and drink fall under biological and physiological needs—the most basic needs for a human being to live—which is why they are sometimes called as the primitive needs. Next to these is safety. Without food, drink and safety man, according to Maslow, is good for nothing.

Imagine you are in a third world African country where an age-old civil war ravages like hell and human beings behave like it's the end of all known worlds. Put in such a situation, would you, in all honesty and frankness, care for books? Would you long for a good read when you don't even know where and how to find your next meal and where to spend the day out of harm's way? Maslow would cry a reverberating "No!" It is a Maslowian mortal sin to find something to read when starvation and wars lay waste on you and your country. One can crave for a good read only when one has a meal to eat and a safe, let alone cozy and decent, place to stay. But Doris Lessing, the 2007 Nobel Prize Laureate, seems to be thinking of the opposite.

In the 80's, Lessing narrates in her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, she went to the war-worn and famine-stricken Zimbabwe. She said that all people she met there were dying to get their hands on books to read. They should have first craved for food, drink and safety, and when those were satisfied only then could they start filling up their bookshelves. With their stomachs full, imagine the Zimbabweans feeling the tropical breeze, picking or sucking their teeth, and lying in hammocks while perusing the best reads English literature can offer.

It sounds surreal with people complaining about not having books to read while their stomachs are empty and their lives are threatened by all kinds of catastrophes known to man. One may agree. But digging deeper, one may also find logic.

Lessing's idea tallies with that of Edwin Percy Whipples's: "Books are lighthouses erected in the great sea of time." Whipples regards books (read: knowledge and education) as light and guide in/through rough and tough times, just as Lessing implies that the solution to all our problems is books (again, read: knowledge and education). Give food to the Zimbabweans and it can't be assured if they can get knowledge, but give them knowledge and they can surely produce food and find ways on how to solve their problems. That is indeed true because, although aid and food from the international community flooded into the country, its problems did not just remain, they even multiplied. It must be an academic way of approaching the Zimbabwean problems, but Lessing thinks that all those problems stem from lack of proper education and knowledge.

Lessing is not only trying to present a viable solution to Zimbabwe's problems here, but also to the very same problems that beset all third-world countries. Let us face the fact that the lack of the knowledge and education appropriate to and suitable for third world countries is what put them in their current sorry situation. Their problems persist because their knowledge and education don't deal with their reality. Corruption, poverty, hunger, the lack of efficient political systems, and backwardness are all evidence that education does not permeate third world people's lives. Lessing seems to tell that knowledge makes one understand the past, live the present, and determine the future. This contention goes farther as to say that knowledge is the foundation of human existence. And who would dare refute and contend with that?

Another subject matter that Lessing touches on in her speech that has been reaping more negative comments than positive is the one about modern technology, to be precise the Internet. She claims that the Internet takes away people's love of books. She cites industrial Britain as an example where people love to surf the Internet and forget the touch and smell of printed books. She questions their loss of interest in real reading—the readers literally feeling the books they read. Lessing might have noticed that her book's sale has gone slow and low. This attack on their world is not, however, new to the Internet prophets and their followers. Before Lessing it was Elton John and John Updike who blew the whistle on Internet's bad effects on the music industry and on publishing, respectively. John Updike prophesied that the digitization of writing signals the end of authorship.

John Updike's, Elton John's, and Doris Lessing's nagging kvetches on the Internet clearly talk about their ages. I admire all of these individuals, and if asked who my twenty most favorite people are, they will surely be among my top ten—although John's colorful and interesting personal life might impel me to put him on the lowest twentieth, at most. But I just don't know if I completely agree with their peeve on new technology, considering that I grew up with computer in one hand and printed books in the other. Thanks to the new archiving methods brought about by the Internet and digital technology, I was able to read heaps of articles and books that libraries don't even carry. Buy books? Frankly, I have spent more money buying books than clothes, and my house looks more like a library than a house. One thing I can say about bookstores, though, is that they mainly promote books by well-known authors and big publishers, which doesn't make them any different from fashion boutiques that sell products by big labels. It is business after all.

I just wonder what John Updike's reaction was when The New Yorker, the magazine he is famously connected with, went online. And let it be known to Elton John's rock-ribbed groupies that they can get fresh news on John and can book or purchase tickets to his tours through his personal website. As for Doris Lessing, since she is the eldest of the three, let us just excuse her by taking her grumble as a practical gag. The 88-year old Lessing did not manage to fly to Sweden to receive her award. Since Nobel awards ceremonies are not telecast internationally, it would have been a shame if Lessing missed watching her award presentation live. Or Lessing might have watched her award received and her speech delivered by her publisher through real-time video coverage buzzed over to her England house via the Internet by the Nobel committee?

[About the author. Papa Osmubal is Oscar Balajadia of Magalang, now Macau resident and married to a Chinese local. He has been a Catholic seminarian, Catholic missionary, bookstore staff, teaching assistant, and teacher. Currently at daytime he is the Assistant Librarian at The International School of Canada in Macau, while at nighttime he moonlights as part-time teacher and tutor. His poems have appeared in various anthologies and publications, online and hardcopy. He has work archived in the University of Columbia Granger's World of Poetry  and other places. A work of his will also appear in the forthcoming W.W. Norton Poetry Anthology of Contemporary Voices from the East.  He is a contributing writer to Chick Flicks, Our Own Voice (OOV): Writing from the Filipino Diaspora, and other publications.]

-Posted: 6:12 AM 2/5/08 | More of this author on eK!