The great (book) escape
The country is in a serious political crisis, the scandal-ridden government could fall at any moment, there might be a coup d'etat and there is a possibility of violence in the streets. I don't know about you, but I'm off to the bookshops. It is one way to cope with the stress.
There is another good reason: the Philippines is probably Asia's cheapest place for English-language books. I recently bought a hardback edition of Peter Mayle's latest novel, A Good Year, for 250 pesos ($34). Amazon has it for US$16. I also picked up a hardback of Robert Harris' newest book, Pompeii, for 300 pesos. In Singapore, the paperback edition costs the equivalent of 540 pesos.
Because of economies of scale and a poorly developed publishing industry, local books are expensive and ineptly marketed. There is also the unhelpful fact that many of them are poorly written, and read as if they were edited by hamsters. By comparison, foreign books are abundant, diverse and cheap. How do the sellers get their books? By the truckload, I suspect.
I picture a buyer going to the United States, driving a container van and topping it up with any cheap second-hand (excuse me, 'previously owned') books, the standard being kilogrammes, not titles. The books are dumped by the boxload in the stores and left for customers to rummage through.
I am not complaining, in fact I enjoy the surprises: Kenneth Clark's Leonardo da Vinci (glossy softback with colour photos) for 354 pesos; Andrew Roberts' Napoleon and Wellington, 200 pesos - Amazon's price is US$18.90. By comparison, in Brussels I picked up just three small softback books on Napoleon and they came to 50 euros ($467). I have even found Len Deighton's classic books on French cooking for less than 200 pesos each.
For all their being supposedly previously owned, a lot of the copies look pristine. Browsing the shops is not an effort to be taken lightly. Far and away my favourite chain, Book Sale, maintains shops that are little more than holes in the wall. Magazines are displayed on racks; paperbacks are dumped in bins with vague, indifferent classifications. 'Romance' might include a James Patterson serial killer special.
Another good place is the top storey of National Bookstore's Superstore in Cubao, given over to thousands of books piled in wild disorder. Searching such places is hard work, and sometimes after spending hours I come up dusty, tired and empty-handed. But never mind: it's good exercise, and therapeutic. As I shift books around and classify the ones I am getting, I mutter 'you're history', and imagine I am talking about the current government.