As I was sitting inside a crowded TransJakarta bus, I reached into my bag and opened a half-read novel. I couldn’t help but feel people staring at me strangely for doing this relatively humdrum thing. I was tempted to tell them, “I’m just reading, everyone, nothing to see here.”
Come to think of it, though, reading books is probably not the most common activity that one can be seen doing in public setting in Indonesia. Office employees might still be found perusing newspapers on their way to work or ladies at a beauty salon will be giving instruction to their hairdressers while holding women’s magazines. But why not books?
One of the reasons I mostly heard is the lack of time. Yes, our lives have become more fast-paced and busy now, but this fact shouldn’t avoid you from going to a bookstore and picking an enticing book to read. Busy at work the whole day? You can still read at night one chapter at a time, and before you know it, you will finish a thick memoir.
Meanwhile, some other people seem to prefer other form of media to consume, from the aforementioned newspapers and magazines to television and Internet. They can provide you with faster and more practical information, but there are several features that are not provided by the consumption of such media, especially when you compare them with fictional books. According to this Harvard Business Review article, reading novels can give you various benefits, such as making one better in understanding human emotion.
There is also one of the modern symptoms that I find pervasive: most of us are tethered to our mobile gadgets nowadays and get addicted to social networking sites. This has arguably shortened our attention span, and I have to admit that sometimes I feel that mine is getting shorter by the minute, too. With less than 140 characters per tweet, scrolling through your Twitter timeline sounds more tempting than having to leaf through hundreds of pages.
Probably this is also why some Indonesians are enamored by the concept of “kultwit” (literally means “Twitter lecture”), where a user will explain about a certain object — be it a social phenomenon, current affairs, or even scientific object — through a series of tweets. But at its best, the information you get from Twitter can only enrich your mind so far because everything is being discussed on a superficial level. Meanwhile with books, you can understand a subject matter in a more detailed and thorough manner.
Going all the way to the roots I believe the educational system we have in our country can take the blame to a certain extent on why most Indonesians are not keen of reading books. I was educated in public schools from elementary to high school, and as far as I can remember, I was rarely assigned to read books — in this case, literature — for my English and Bahasa Indonesia courses. Even though my fellow friends and I sometimes encountered passages from famous Indonesian authors’ literary works in our textbook, our teacher never pushed us to dig deeper and read. As a result, most students’ understanding about literature was insufficient and they ended up not appreciating books.
Thankfully, I was raised in a book-loving home — I was one of those kids who prefer to get a gift of books than toys — which turns me into a bibliophile-slash-book-hoarder today. Even if your school never gave you an assignment to read “Catcher in the Rye,” you can read it for yourself and find out who this Holden Caulfield character truly is. Because in its very essence, reading is about self-actualization and making yourself more knowledgeable.
If you are now intrigued to read more, what to do? Go to a bookstore is the most obvious thing to do. And yet I still lament the selection in some Indonesian bookstores. If you pay a visit to stores like Gramedia, the best-seller section is stacked with Indonesian books whose topics make me furious most of the time: self-help motivations, tips on how to get rich fast, or, more horrendously, conspiracy theories that are peppered with the words “Zionist” or “horror secrets.” No worries, though, because Indonesia still has a troupe of excellent writers, such as Dewi “Dee” Lestari and Ayu Utami, whose novels are critically acclaimed.
And if you think that book prices are getting more expensive nowadays, there are always the libraries. Granted, you cannot easily find it in every corner of Jakarta, but there are a number of well-stocked and comfortable libraries you can visit here, including the Freedom Library in Menteng.
Also, there have been some admirable initiatives to foster the love of books. One of them is Drive Books Not Cars, which organizes donation of children’s books for Taman Bacaan Pelangi. They also hold a second-hand book fair several times in a year whose proceed will be donated to the Sahabat Anak foundation.
At the end of the day, I still harbor a hope that more Indonesians will discover the pleasure of books and, along the way, support our own excellent writers.
And if you still have a doubt on why you should read, let me leave you with this quote by the late writer extraordinaire Nora Ephron from her book “I Feel Bad About My Neck”:
“Reading is everything. Reading makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something, learned something, become a better person. Reading makes me smarter. Reading gives me something to talk about later on. Reading is the unbelievably healthy way my attention deficit disorder medicates itself. Reading is escape, and the opposite of escape; it’s a way to make contact with reality after a day of making things up, and it’s a way of making contact with someone else’s imagination after a day that’s all too real. Reading is grist. Reading is bliss.”