When I was a child in the Philippines, really great books weren't so easy to get. The best ones were abroad, and I'd look forward to the moments when my father would unpack his suitcase from a business trip and hand me his latest acquisitions. These I would read over and over, relishing the weight of them in my hands, the aroma of the binding glue wafting up from the open pages, the illustrations.
Over coffee one afternoon, a book-industry professional (whom I can't identify) told me that for the past two months virtually no imported books had entered the country, in part because of the success of one book, Twilight by Stephenie Meyer. The book, an international best seller, had apparently attracted the attention of customs officials. When an examiner named Rene Agulan opened a shipment of books, he demanded that duty be paid on it.
"Ah, you can't be too successful in this country," I said. "If you are, then people start demanding a cut..."
...The importer of Twilight made a mistake and paid the duty requested. A mistake because such duty flies in the face of the Florence Agreement, a U.N. treaty that was signed by the Philippines in 1952, guaranteeing the free flow of "educational, scientific, and cultural materials" between countries and declaring that imported books should be duty-free. Mr. Agulan told the importer that because the books were not educational (i.e., textbooks) they were subject to duty. Perhaps they aren't educational, I might have argued, but aren't they "cultural"?
No matter. With this one success under their belt, customs curtailed all air shipments of books entering the country. Weeks went by as booksellers tried to get their books out of storage and started intense negotiations with various government officials.
What doubly frustrated booksellers and importers was that the explanations they received from various officials made no sense. It was clear that, for whatever reason—perhaps the 30-billion-peso ($625 million) shortfall in projected customs revenue—customs would go through the motions of having a reasonable argument while in fact having none at all.
Customs Undersecretary Espele Sales explained the government's position to a group of frustrated booksellers and importers in an Orwellian PowerPoint presentation, at which she reinterpreted the Florence Agreement as well as Philippine law RA 8047, providing for "the tax and duty-free importation of books or raw materials to be used in book publishing." For lack of a comma after the word "books," the undersecretary argued that only books "used in book publishing" (her underlining) were tax-exempt.
"What kind of book is that?" one publisher asked me afterward. "A book used in book publishing." And she laughed ruefully.
I thought about it. Maybe I should start writing a few.Harry the Cultural and Educational Potter and His Fondness for Baskerville Type.
Likewise, with the Florence Agreement, she argued that only educational books could be considered protected by the U.N. treaty. Customs would henceforth be the arbiter of what was and wasn't educational.
"For 50 years, everyone has misinterpreted the treaty and now you alone have interpreted it correctly?" she was asked.
"Yes," she told the stunned booksellers.