Books, believes Hernando Guanlao, need to live. And they are only alive if they are being read.
Thought and effort, time and money went into making them; they will never repay it lying idle in a cabinet or on a shelf. Books need to be set free. So walk by his home on Balagtas Street in Makati, Metro Manila, and it seems books are pretty much all you will see. Thousands of them, on shelves and in crates outside on the pavement, piled high in the garage and on the stairs, each one free to anyone who wants it.
“People can borrow, take home, bring back or keep,” says Guanlao, 60, a former tax accountant, ice-cream salesman and government employee known by all as Nanie. “Or they can share and pass on to another. But basically they should just take, take!”
Guanlao reckons books “have lives, and have to lead them. They have work to do. And the act of giving a book … it makes you complete.”
Thankfully for Guanlao’s faith in human nature, people also give — often people he has never previously met, or does not even see: they leave boxes of books outside his door.
The Reading Club 2000, as it is called, began 12 years ago as a tribute to Guanlao’s late parents, both civil servants.
“They gave me my love of reading,” he says. “I wanted to honor them and to do some kind of community service. So I put my old books — and my brothers’ and sisters’, maybe 100 in all — outside, to see if anyone was interested.”
It took a while for people to work out that this was, as Guanlao puts it, a library “open 24/7, and with no rules,” but the scheme, offering everything from battered crime paperbacks to fashion magazines, manuals, arcane histories and school textbooks, is booming.
It is helped by the fact that despite a 1994 act pledging “reading centers throughout the country,” the Philippines, with a population of 92 million, has fewer than 700 public libraries, and buying books is a luxury many cannot afford.
Fortunately the Reading Club is spreading. Guanlao takes boxes of books into Manila’s neighborhoods himself, on a specially adapted book bike. He has also helped friends set up similar schemes at 10 other sites around the country, and inspired student book drives.
Aurora Verayo, from a town several hours drive from Manila, says she came to see Guanlao to donate books, but he persuaded her to open her own center.
“This is the start of a movement,” she says.