The Absurd and Ironic Indonesian Reading Culture

While a lot of people abroad are racing to read hundreds of books per year, the Indonesian people are famous for having one of the world’s lowest reading interests. This peculiarity is not only concerning to many but also represents a huge irony for a country whose people are immensely active in day-to-day social media activities.

 

Current Status Quo

To understand more about why such an issue is present in my own homeland, I went on the internet and looked up local articles that discuss this pressing concern. There is a lot of variety of opinions towards the matter at hand, yet they all have the same fuel which drove this very discussion: world statistics.

More specifically, an article by Konde.co cited multiple sources like UNESCO which, according to the article, claimed that the Indonesian reading interest is as low as 0,001%.

Weirdly enough, the Australia Indonesia Youth Association (AIYA) doubted the credibility of the so-labelled “UNESCO data” found in numerous local articles just like the one written by Konde.co. AIYA wrote the following paragraph in their article entitled Are Indonesians Really Not Interested in Reading?:

“These stories quote that one in every 1,000 Indonesians has a high interest in reading. But an exploration of UNESCO’s database and a request for this data have both failed to confirm these statistics.”

Nonetheless, other studies concluded similar results to the claim of “UNESCO data”, regardless of whether they officially came from UNESCO. Central Connecticut State University’s research called the World’s Most Literate Nations Ranked, similarly placed Indonesia in the 60th-place out of 61 nations they studied upon.

One thing for sure, the world recognizes how low the Indonesian reading interest rate is, and this quickly sparked discussions and arguments among local Indonesian communities.

 

Irony: Active Phone Users

Before diving straight into the roots and effects of the low Indonesian reading interest, let’s take a detour and consider a striking irony. 

According to LegalEra.id, 60 million Indonesians possess tech gadgets and are well on their way to becoming one of the largest active smartphone users in the world. Moreover, ironically, despite having a really low reading interest, 2017 data from We Are Social reveals that Indonesians can stare at gadget screens for about 9 hours a day. That said, Indonesians have no excuse to say that they’re overly busy with work/school hence lack sufficient time to read. If they can fit a 9-hour average schedule on screens, they surely have as much time to dedicate to books.

 

Possible Causes

What could then be the cause behind this nationwide issue? This is where most discussions separate themselves from one another. Different communities and significant people in the field have mixed opinions, particularly on this issue’s inherent root cause.

 

Lack of Accessibility; Not Laziness

Nirwan Ahmad Arsuka, initiator of Pustaka Bergerak (mobile libraries) openly disagreed with the idea of the laziness of Indonesian children to read books. According to Nirwan, the surveys, like the one done by Central Connecticut State University, led to wrong conclusions about the reading interest of Indonesians.

In a report by detik.com, Nirwan provided three factors behind the low reading interest rate of Indonesian children. Firstly, he stated that children do not have easy access to books, and on the contrary, he believes that if you provide those children with books they like, they will gladly read them.

Students read library books in Batang Regency, Central Java. ANTARA FOTO/Harviyan Perdana Putra.

The first factor provided is backed by the hands-on experience Nirwan had in the early days of initiating mobile libraries. He claimed that in 2016, his mobile libraries were struggling to find children who are interested in reading books. However, in 2019, children in remote areas have finally understood the joy of reading books and in turn, willingly pursued mobile libraries like Nirwan’s.

Secondly, Nirwan believes that another factor behind the low Indonesian reading interest is the uninteresting topics found in countless local books, especially those published by local governments. He further criticized that these books have uninteresting content, are not well written, and are overly filled with formal lectures. For him, these aspects spoiled the children’s perception of books and could steer potential reading interests towards translated foreign books instead.

One section of the article presented the negative effects of the increasing preference to read translated foreign books. It says, “There is a looming danger. Indonesian children can be isolated from their own environment. Nirwan began to observe that many children in the regions know better about animals in other parts of the world than the animals in their environment. This is because they lack the supply of original Indonesian books.” It is unclear whether this point was brought up by Nirwan, or merely the author’s opinion.

Lastly, Nirwan considers the lack of government intervention as one of the causes of low reading interest. He wants the government to reject the notion that Indonesian children have low reading interests. Likewise, he doesn’t want Indonesian children to be blamed for their low reading interest. 

Although I personally don’t completely agree with all three points, they cover most of the public’s opinion on why Indonesia has a very low reading interest. I shall discuss later down in this article why I disagree with some of Nirwan’s opinions.

 

Low Literacy Rate

While Nirwan provided more hands-on experience-based answers, Narasi created a video that discussed this same issue, but is backed with the opinions of academic professionals. Chairil Abdini, a lecturer of Public Policy and Decision Analysis in Universitas Indonesia, shared four reasons why the Indonesian literacy level is low.

In an article posted in The Conversation, Chairil stated that malnutrition plays a critical role in Indonesia’s literacy level. In 2013, the percentage of malnutrition of Indonesians was as high as 17.8%, as well as an increase in stunting percentages that hit up to 36.8%. 

Aside from health factors, the education quality of Indonesians contributed to the nation’s literacy level. Narasi emphasized the competency test results of educators back in 2015 resulted in an average outcome of only 53.02%.

Moreover, Chairil brought up the factor of inadequate education infrastructure. Three weak points of the present education infrastructure were pointed out: electricity and computer laboratory, internet access, and information-communication technology. All three of these are undoubtedly influential in determining any nation’s literacy level, yet Indonesia has a lot to work on concerning these fields.

Finally, Chairil presented how low reading interest greatly affected the nation’s literacy level. Though this last point seems to be a circular argument, if you think about it, literacy level and reading interests are very much interrelated. If the former is low, the latter would also be equally as low, and vice versa.

Chairil’s reasoning, in my opinion, is similar to that of Nirwan’s such that neither of them pointed the blame on the kids being lazy. Instead, they took a step back and re-think the nation’s present situation. Without the right vessel and support from surroundings, it is no surprise that a country as big as Indonesia has very low reading interests.

 

Alternate Perspective

Most discussions presented so far seemed like they do not want to admit or recognize that the Indonesian reading interest is indeed low. Instead of doing so, they would rather bounce the responsibility back to the government, lack of libraries, or how inaccessible books are in remote areas.

I think this problem goes both ways, sort of like a chicken-or-the-egg problem. The level of interest in reading is low, which explains why libraries are so uncommon in Indonesia. At the same time, libraries are uncommon in the country, hence why reading interest is low. 

However, I’d reckon that admitting how low the Indonesian reading interest really is shouldn’t be avoided nor ignored. In any case, it simply proves just how bad the condition currently is and that it requires more work to do – requiring the involvement of all parties: the people, the government, and the educators. 

 

An Educator’s Perspective

To learn more about an educator’s perspective on this issue, I had a chat with my former high school teacher, Mm. Martha Indrati, who taught me and my schoolmates Journalism and Cambridge’s AS Level General Papers, both of which are delivered in English. Mm. Martha was also a National Instructor, a trainer for educators in the government’s previous system. In the modern system, she’s involved in a national program called Guru Penggerak, a government program designed to foster educators. 

Martha thinks that the low reading interest in today’s children is caused by many things and the children cannot be blamed for that. She added, “Just like the saying ‘it takes a village to raise a child,’ an environment influences the attitude, habit, and the interests of the children themselves.”

Books. Martin Vorel via Libreshot.

Moreover, Martha emphasized how a family’s upbringing could greatly affect a child’s habit, including reading. “When a child is born in an environment where books are absent and he/she never sees anyone in his surrounding reading a book, how can we expect him/her to enjoy reading? Taste, interest, and habits are learned from the environment too. Furthermore, when the books they often see are mostly textbooks – which of course remind them of all the unpleasant things like exams, assignments, and homework – it’s not surprising that they grow without reading interest, or even hate reading activities.”

Aside from the culture of a family, Martha also mentioned how the rapid advancement of technology takes part in this case. “When a child is exposed to TVs or gadgets which allow them to enjoy animated objects that entertain them, they will have a different standard of ‘entertainment’. Their brain has been spoonfed with moving objects which makes it difficult to imagine things from words. This is why many will say that reading is boring, as their brain should think harder and that is tiring.”

Martha continued to express concern towards most online text-based digital content, like social media and/or online news sites, that “have also shaped the habit of reading short texts. Many things are made concise or short. This makes many young ones reluctant to read a longer version, like novels.” That said, “YouTube and vlogs, have somewhat shifted the written information to a spoken one.” Likewise, “Parents now read information from gadgets, so the children will do too.”

As a matter of fact, “schools, especially in Indonesia, haven’t really seen reading as an important skill. This is seen from the types of Reading tasks that are not developed in language subjects including both Bahasa Indonesia and English Language (in national curriculum).” Not to mention, “Activities such as book reports are rarely seen. Discussion of stories in classes has been rare. Mostly reading is for answering questions or preparing the national examination.” Martha deems that “the government, at the same time, hasn’t been that serious about this matter.”

As an educator herself, Martha oftentimes hears primary school teachers in her school complain that the students find difficulty in understanding the text. Yet, when they give an assignment to review a book, many students said that they don’t have one. To cater to this issue, Martha proposed the school to make a competition related to reading, just for fun. It could be in a form of either letting them interpret the story in a form of poem, pictures, drama, review, or even fun quizzes about the stories, to build the trend of reading.

Sadly, accepted or not, her idea will only affect one school (a.k.a my former school). There are still a whole lot more schools, especially in remote areas, who have yet attained the opportunity to organize such an event, either because they’re uninterested or are unable to carry out the event due to internal factors. Thus, it’s still a long journey before such a trend can be re-ignited in the lives of many Indonesians.

On a side note, her husband is an editor so of course, he deals with books. One of his fellow editors has this unique rule at home: they don’t have TVs, so the only entertainment form of entertainment are books. Correspondingly, she finds that “children who like reading will, of course, have better communicative skills in mostly written form, as well as higher critical thinking skills.”

 

Viable Solutions

We can clearly conclude that Indonesia’s low reading interest is a concerning problem for many people. Problems like these need solutions and tossing the blame back and forth would only be bidding around the bush. Now that we’ve established what could be the underlying causes of this issue, allow me to propose several viable solutions.

 

Ebooks

Amazon Kindle. Pocket Lint.

Since most of the presented causes mentioned how inaccessible books are especially to remote areas, I’d suggest publishers, distributors, and/or government officials alike begin to raise awareness of ebooks. 

The choice of ebooks is parallel with the ever-increasing popularity of tech gadgets as simple as smartphones. Authorities or people involved in the book industry can help the current situation by making ebooks more widespread, or provide an online repository of free ebooks. That way, instead of wasting 9 hours of screen time for less relevant Tiktok videos, youngsters can develop the habit of reading with the convenience right on the palm of their hands.

Aside from being more accessible and more easily distributed than physical books, ebooks don’t take up as much physical space/volume. Physical books are more vulnerable to physical changes like natural disasters, getting worn out due to overtime usage, etc. Plus, ebooks are arguably cheaper than most physical books due to the absence of printing costs.

 

Increase Local Books’ Quality; Decrease Translated Foreign Books’ Pricing

Well, what about those who dislike ebooks and would prefer physical books over them? In my opinion, two viable solutions to this are to either produce local books of higher quality, to attract local readers or reduce the prices of translated foreign books. As discussed earlier, some people dislike local books due to its lower quality, so perhaps by decreasing the price of translated foreign books, more potential readers will be attracted to developing their reading habits.

Returning to the theme of translated foreign books, we read how the previous detik.com report featuring Nirwan disagreed with making translated foreign books more widespread. To them, it’s doing more harm than good and could potentially “infect” the minds of Indonesian children. In my opinion, the increasing popularity of translated foreign books merely proves how poor locally produced books are.

Furthermore, the more confined we are into thinking within our local environment only, the more closed-minded we are going to be; isn’t that the case with most Indonesian issues nowadays? Getting more exposed to a diverse variety of global opinions and mindsets makes you think more critically. There are so many books to pick from, and while yes, several books do not accord with the Indonesian culture, the majority is still pretty much acceptable in our nation’s inherent values.

Translating foreign books, in my opinion, is a great step forward. It makes foreign books more accessible to those who are unfamiliar with foreign languages and are well filled with higher quality content. Indeed, in recent months, local Indonesian bookstores are improving in terms of the types of books they offer. 

Dennis Adishwara uploaded an Instagram post in February 2020 where he expressed joy and gratitude in finding more and more translated foreign books of relevant topics. Dennis posed in front of the Science section while his partner, Vina, held a translated book written by Neil deGrasse Tyson titled Astrophysics for People in a Hurry and another titled Stephen Hawking: A Mind Without Limits. Other books written by authors like Stephen Hawking, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Carl Sagan are also visibly available in the store.

According to Dennis, the rapid growth of the availability of Science, History, and Economy books is able to overturn the former glory of books like “the secret of multiplying fortunes or how to get rich quick.” Dennis hopes that this trend will be a positive indication that Indonesians are increasingly curious about knowledge & critical thinking – instead of reading overly unrealistic methods written by fake wealth gurus.

 

Reduce English Books’ Price

Finally, I suppose a couple of readers here would love to read more English books and content, just like myself. I prefer reading English books compared to Indonesian books, which is perhaps a biased opinion since I’ve studied most academic subjects in English all my life. Not little of my friends also share the same experience and are surprisingly more comfortable in reading English texts than Indonesian ones.

However, albeit a very biased opinion, it’s safe to say that it’s challenging to find the latest English books unless you go to specialized bookstores like Periplus, Kinokuniya, Books and Beyond, etc. These bookstores are not only less accessible, but English books are also generally crazy expensive. Therefore, one way to cater to such an audience who wants to start their reading habits but is hindered by its costs, there should be an effort to decrease these books’ prices.

 

Closing Remarks

Why You Should Start Habit of Reading

I can write a whole separate article on this point, but allow me to sum up what I found to be distinct from developing a habit of reading. In the modern world where digital content is found almost everywhere, books remain consistent throughout the evolution of civilization, and this is for a good reason. 

While your next-door, up and coming “online influencer” can come up with their content on the fly, book authors have to commit much more to craft their art. These people are mostly experts in the field, whose ideas are inspiring the lives of many successful people around the globe. I’m 100% sure it’s not a question of whether books (or ebooks) are better than scammy online fake gurus who are merely trying to steal your money.

I genuinely hope the Indonesian people will embark on their own journey into the world of reading. This nation is in dire need of people who embrace openness and are willing to innovate. There are all too many old-fashioned rulers whose ways of thinking are far lagging behind the rest of the world.

 

How to Read More Books

If you’re interested in developing a habit of reading, I would recommend you to watch a mini-documentary by Max Joseph. The movie went through a lot of brilliant concepts and also teach you how to read faster, so you can read more books before you die.

A favorite of mine is to use your fingers when you read, point to the words, drag them speedily, let your brain race with your fingers. That way, visions of the book’s content start rolling in your head and plays like a movie. You remember points more vividly and more clearly. You finish books fast and concisely. Popular to contrary beliefs, this method is insanely effective in letting you crush books faster and recall their ideas. Funny enough, I do remember one of my primary school teachers forbidding us to read with our fingers; I guess someone’s missing out.

Read more, explore. There are tons of great opinions and ideas from the world’s leading figures to the most humbling writers out there. The Proclamator of Indonesia, and the nation’s first Vice President, Mohammad Hatta, famously said, “I’m willing to go to prison as long as I’m with books, because with books, I’m free.”

 

Featured Image by Johannes Jansson/norden.org, CC BY 2.5 DK, via Wikimedia Commons.

Wilson Wongso Written by:

Indonesian Computer Science Student, Private Tutor, and Content Writer. At times I read, game, or watch. My boss calls me Jack of All Trades; I could not agree more.

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