Sun, 25 May 2003

Book-reading bug needs to be spread through Indonesia

Simon Marcus Gower, Contributor, Jakarta

"I don't really read. Sure, I read the newspaper and some magazines, but I've never really been much of a book reader." -- a sad statement really, but particularly so when said to an avid reader of books.

But this statement becomes even more sorrowful, if not pitiful, when it is known who said it. Regrettably, the person who said this is supposed to be a teacher. What a pitiful example this "teacher" makes for his students! A teacher who does not read; surely this is oxymoronic, but this person openly, and without embarrassment, stated that he is not a book reader.

Any educator, and indeed any educated person, should, by definition, be a reader of books, and the habit of reading undoubtedly needs to be encouraged throughout Indonesia.

Of course, there are some problems here. Books can be expensive and so the supply of books can be difficult, but the situation is improving. There can be little doubt that, with the greater freedoms that this country is beginning to experience as it emerges towards greater democracy, the literary world is also enjoying a period of blossoming growth here.

Walk into any bookshop in any town across the Indonesian archipelago and you are likely to find, in many ways, a quite remarkable sight. Often, bookshops in Indonesia take on the appearance of a library rather than a commercial outlet for the sale of books.

Bookshops are very popular places for people to go, but not necessarily to buy a book. Instead, bookshops can be seen filled with people, simply reading. It makes a wonderful sight for the eyes of a lover of books but perhaps the bookshop owners are less pleased about what is happening.

Their stock is being used and read extensively and actively but sales are less active. People standing, sitting on the floor or even lying on the floor cannot seem to get enough of books. Sure, the number of readers of quite shallow comic books, typically from Japan, might be disappointing but these "bookshop readers" tend to cover all departments of the bookshops. From politics to religion, hobbies to languages, readers are everywhere in Indonesian bookshops.

Browse through a bookshop in Western countries and you will get a different picture. Certain sections of bookshops there will consistently be quiet and rarely visited. Indonesian bookshops are, by comparison, veritable hives of activity.

There may, of course, be an unfortunate reality at work here. Many of those avid readers in bookshops here may be doing their reading in the shops because they simply do not have the disposable income to spend on, what might be described, the relative luxury of books. This is a reality that we have to face and respond to. While it is true that books in Indonesia are cheaper than in most other countries, it is equally true that for many Indonesians books can be prohibitively expensive.

The expense of books is particularly harsh on schools. It is not unusual to visit schools in outlying provincial areas that have a very poor supply of books. Some schools may be encountered that simply have no books at all for students.

The only book holder is the teacher, who must then disseminate the book's contents to the students. But this does little or nothing to stimulate or encourage interest in reading.

It is probably fair to state that there has not been a great tradition of the written word throughout Indonesia's history. Oral communications have been rather more dominant, but with the end of the New Order era it does seem as though the written word has been enjoying a blossoming that readers of books can both capitalize on themselves and use to encourage others to become book readers too.

With greater freedoms and democracy writers and readers alike are able to do more with the written word. If the evidence of bookstores here in Indonesia is anything to go on, then there are many, many people eager to read and so learn.

But, of course, there are always pressures being exerted on the extent to which a nation can be considered a book-reading nation. Indeed, every nation around the world faces this kind of dilemma.

Books are unquestionably good in their stimulation of the mind and the intellect, but we live in an age when other media challenge and undermine the extent to which books will be picked up and used.

This is an era in which visuals are highly accessible and may have a tendency to dominate our lives. For decades now, the television has been a way of life for people all over the globe. Many people could hardly exist without it. If you told a teenager that he would not be able to watch television for a month, it is likely that he would find it difficult to bear.

Alternatively, if you told him that for the next month he would have no access to books, his response would probably be something along the lines of, "OK, no problem."

When you add in the effects of video and computer games then the extent of the challenge to books is only increased. With the growth of the Internet, books are further in danger of being sidelined. In this sense it becomes increasingly important for lovers of books to actively promote the book-reading bug. In particular, it is important for young children to be helped to realize the great value of being able to pick up a book, concentrate on its contents and perhaps learn from it, perhaps be entertained by it, but almost certainly be enriched by the reading experience.

There are great "helpers" in the challenge of trying to spread the book-reading bug. The Harry Potter series, for example, has done wonders to encourage children to read. But the value and wisdom of having good libraries in schools cannot be underestimated, and similarly, the value of parents taking time to read to and with their children cannot be overstated.

Books are wonderful things that can help us to improve in our own world and transport us to other worlds: Spreading the joy of books around Indonesia can only help to develop this country.