Reading Habits & Poverty

Nov 1st, 2010, in Featured, News, by

Why Indonesians are not big book readers; ‘Reading Ambassador’ Tantowi Yahya holds forth on the issue and blames poverty.


Reading Ambassador (Duta Baca Indonesia), television celebrity Tantowi Yahya said at the proclamation event in Pontianak for the “West Kalimantan Reads” movement that Indonesians were not voracious readers for largely reasons of poverty:

“Above all it’s based on economic factors, on whether families can afford to buy books and newspapers.”

Poor families would naturally prioritise food, school fees, and school textbooks, over the purchase of recreational reading material.

He suggested two methods to ameliorate the problem:

  • libraries; from the national down to the village level, to enable poor people access to books for free
  • parents, especially mothers, should read in front of their children regularly, to sow an interest in reading in their spawn

Tantowi Yahya
Tantowi Yahya extolling the virtues of reading

However on at least the first point – libraries – Tantowi said Indonesia still had very far to go in providing adequate public facilities, and that most regional government heads had little interest in developing library facilities:

How many local politicians campaign on building up library infrastructure?

There was one bright spot, he said, that being the province of Riau, where the Governor had built a very big and comprehensive public library right next door to his own office building: antara

The example of Riau has to be followed in other regions.

60 Comments on “Reading Habits & Poverty”

  1. Chris says:

    Indonesians were not voracious readers for largely reasons of poverty:

    My Indonesian wife isn’t poor, and she rarely reads a newspaper, let alone a book.

    Actually, the last book she seriously read was: How To Get Mr Bule. (It was published after we were married, if you’re wondering).

    Even then, she only read it because I needed her help to understand some sections.

  2. Aprianti says:

    🙂 I think it has more to do with the habit in the family. I remember that during my childhood, every morning I would sit nicely, waiting for my grandma to read me the serial of “Doyok” and “Ali Oncom” from Pos Kota daily paper. Totally unsuitable and irrelevant story for children (I just recently realized that she actually loved to read it for herself, but she couldn’t read with low voice, so, …). Anyway, it motivated me a lot to explore other reading materials.

    Too bad that the price of books in Indonesia is relatively expensive. If only they can lower the tax a little bit….

  3. timdog says:

    I have much to say on this, but I have just gone through the 26,000 proper words I have managed to batter out in the last 8 days, and I am now going to indulge myself with a very slowly consumed coffee, and as many as three whole donuts at J-Co…
    Nanti aja, ya…

  4. berlian biru says:

    No, nothing to do with poverty, Indonesians just aren’t interested in reading (a wild generalisation I grant you). Like Chris, my missus isn’t stupid and she isn’t poor but she simply doesn’t care about books or reading. She actually thinks I am being a bit anti-social by sticking my nose in a book in the evening instead of following the vast stream of bilge that issues forth from the TV.

    We’ve discussed on another thread how the bookshops of Jakarta seem to stock only self help guides, business management gurus or come to Jesus books with little or no history, biography (beyond the vast selection of Barack Obama books which will soon be going cheap), politics, science or literature.

    I thought that might be because the only people who buy books are the Chinese and Christians until I went to the Book Fair in Senayan last month and it was packed, the same dross was on offer but this time with the added extra that about fifteen percent of the stands were selling Qu’rans, electronic Qu’rans, digital Qu’rans, Qu’ran DVD’s, covers for Qu’rans or nicely carved wooden stands for Qu’rans.

    It matters little about faith or race, when it comes to books Indonesians know what they like and they’re not remotely interested in anything that falls outside their limited spheres of interest.

  5. Agan says:

    I think many Indonesian are hard wired more into a verbal culture as opposed to reading culture.
    Since time immemorial deep rooted superb oral tradition like wayang or lively pantun berkait have lived on and are far more popular pastime than reading literature or novel would.
    Although with advent of internet virtual reading,writing and chatting are taking over especially among sophisticated urbanites.

  6. diego says:

    I only read, that’s all I need.

  7. timdog says:

    Well, BB and Agan have in part preempted my point, but hell, that’s not going to stop me going on, and on, and on, and on…
    And I’m going to do that tiresome thing I like to do again as well – holding Indonesia up to the warped mirror of India…

    Ages ago, discussing this same topic (why don’t Indonesians read books, and why are the books that they do read so sh*t?) elsewhere I was harping on about India, and how thoroughly obsessed with high-brow literature it is, how vibrant its book scene, how so many people read quality literature, and how it has serious literature in several languages…
    Raising myself into a frenzy I declared that by comparison Indonesia was functionally illiterate.
    At this point someone else, rather more sober-headed than me, retorted abruptly that that was a spectacularly banal thing to say, given that literacy in Indonesia tops 90%, while literacy in India is not all that far above 50%, and is not far off zero in large rural swathes of the country.
    Well, that told me, and made me think twice about hurling out the hyperbole for the rest of the exchange.

    But the fact does remain, that although lots of people in India can’t read, the reading of books, the reading of good books, extends right down the social scale pretty much as far as the literacy does. Go to a flea-market in India, and I can tell you the quality of the books on sale outstrips that in a thrift store/charity shop in the UK/Australia/US… Go into a new book store, and the stock is usually more high brow than anywhere else I’ve ever been… All the papers give serious book reviews; serious literary writers are major figures. I met a rickshaw driver in Kerala caled Anil Kumar who was well into French existentialists…

    And then look at Indonesia. Reading of “quality” local literature is the preserve of a tiny cliquey elite. I’m pretty sure you won’t find many becak drivers reading books by any of the Utan Kayu bunch – and that’s another thing: the people actually producing the “serious” Indonesian literature appear to be a miniscule, elite clique too.

    There’s something very strange too – when we look at the “greats” of Indonesian literature (and it’s not the most overwhelming of lists, is it?) very many of them seem in some way to be political or semipolitcal figures, and thus their literature is turned into political artifacts, which somehow seems to devalue its pure literary value (even if it was any good in the first place, which – whisper it – it might well not have been).

    A good few of them are poets. And let’s be honest, poetry everywhere has always been the most numbingly self-important, self-indulgent, staring-at-itself-in-the-mirror, downright masturbatory form of literature in the world. For every 100 people who write poetry, there’s about 3 who actually read it. As for “poet and revolutionary”, which seem to be closely linked nouns in this neck of the woods, I’ll take your revolution, but you can cram your patriotic stuff about flowing rivers, soil eagles and volcanoes. Ninety-nine percent of poetry is pure emperor’s-new-clothes anyway…
    Ahem… excuse me, I shall return to my point.

    So having established that Indonesia isn’t a reading country (which it’s not, and it’s got nothing to do with literacy or poverty), how about figuring out why?

    This is where Agan’s point comes in.
    Indonesia (or Java anyway) does have a significant textual tradition – there’s whole archives full of babads out there, but these are not the same thing as books.

    A couple of weeks ago I happened to show a big slab of a book I have to an Indonesian friend who, unlike most people in Surabaya, has some kind of knowledge of “proper” Javanese. The book is a transcription of an unusual early 19th Century Javanese manuscript, rendered into Latin script. It’s got a full English synopsis for each canto, but I just wondered out of curiosity if someone with “good” modern Javanese might be able to make any sense of it.
    She peered at it with baffled fascination, tracing words, saying “yes,” vaguely when I excitedly asked if she understood it, and then saying “no” when I asked what it meant, and then saying “this is Jogja banget…” and then suggesting that her 80-something mother might make sense of it. And then still tracing the lines with a frown, suddenly her eyes sparked with realisation, and then she said, handing the book back as if I was a cheeky idiot who had sort of tricked her, “Oh! Oh I see! You’re not supposed to read this, you know! You’re supposed to sing it!”

    And that’s the thing: Indonesia’s “literature”, its literary body, has always largely been meant for performance, not for someone to sit and read alone on a Sunday afternoon with a cup of tea. For a certain class of courtly people learning, re-writing, or redrafting set chronicles and histories (or producing their own) had an importance, but the business of actually reading stuff, as literature doesn’t figure.

    Even the two great creative wellsprings, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, where treated completely differently in India and Indonesia. In the one place they were actually read – and they are full of stories of course, and provided an original template for narrative literature in exactly the same way the Old Testament did in the Christian West. But in the other they were used only as a background source; everyone was aware of their content, but for all but a tiny few, they were only every watched, not read…

    In this context, perhaps it’s hardly surprising that Indonesians now watch so much TV. And though its standard to bemoan the banality of TV and mourn the loss of beautiful, complex dance-dramas of the past, when every peasant was an artist, and every rice farmer a virtuoso performer, stripping aside all romanticism, was some crude kampung drama, performed over and over by amateur players, or some really second-rate wayang performance somewhere in the backwaters, actually much less banal that a Sinetron? The same repeating storyline and characters, the same utter lack of intellectual challenge for the viewer…

    What I am stumbling towards saying is this: it ought to be obvious that I’m someone who really loves books, and finds it depressing and weird that other people don’t. I also believe that if more people read books – a wide range: modern and old, factual accounts written as “current” 50, 100, 200 years ago, novels written last year and last century, histories of the same topic written by different people, academic works, popular works, reportage, current and from a long time ago, a bit of this, a bit of that – instead of reading blogs, online news sites, and perhaps occasionally Wikipedia, then more people would actually know a little more, have a great deal more perspective, would be less shrill, less likely to leap to crude and simplistic conclusions…

    BUT, if reading of books simply doesn’t have the cultural, historical foundation in Indonesia that it does in India or Europe, is there actually any point in trying to force people to read? Will you ever achieve anything besides adding a few more members to an elitist, navel-gazing clique? Might it not just be better to try to get them to make sinetrons with better scripts and better actors? Might that not be more “culturally appropriate”?

  8. Arie Brand says:

    The situation in the Philippines is not much better though I must say that the stock of the National Bookstore which has branches in all major Filipino cities is actually not too bad and at any case more attractive than the fare on offer in Indonesian bookstores, as you describe it.

    How much of this is a matter of economics? I am not referring to the poverty in Indonesia – that is equally widespread in the Philippines. I am thinking here of the fact that literacy in English is a bit more widespread in the latter country so that it pays to have English language literature on offer. Also, the second hand book sellers there get in a continuous stream of publishers remainders from the USA that often go for next to nothing. I picked up, for instance, the collected works of Lionel Trilling in that way.

    It helps in the Philippines, I think, that their revered national hero, Jose Rizal, was a novelist besides much else (a medical doctor, a teacher, a correspondent in several languages etc.). All Filipino students have to go through a course on his life and are well aware of his intellectual habitus.

    Of Indonesian national heroes Hatta seems to have been a rather bookish man. I remember that when he went to Upper Digul in Papua, as ordinary passenger on a KPM boat, that his library, packed in six big boxes, had to be transported with him – and in the camp he was provided with a house that had a special room for his books. When the government decided that that camp was beneath him as an educated man he missed the boat that came to pick him up because he couldn’t get his books loaded on time. What did he read there? I remember from a diary note that, among other things, he had set himself the task of getting through Werner Sombart’s ‘Der Moderne Kapitalismus’, a hefty two volume work that he no doubt read in German. Sjahrir too seems to have been rather bookish. He had an active command of Dutch besides a passive command of English, French and German, as all academically educated Indonesians had in those days.

    But it doesn’t seem to be that side of their personality that comes to the fore when they are remembered over there. Rizal was not an active politician or ‘revolutionary’ even though the Spaniards shot him for his (non-existent) political activities.

  9. David says:

    I only read, that’s all I need.

    Thanks Diego, that goes down in my memory as one of funniest comments of all time; I do appreciate it, it’s right up there with the Nigerian fellow Jenggot or whatever his name was


    . I’m sensing a little tetchiness here, combined with your comments on Arie’s post; clearly if the Yahya guy gives a speech about reading some place it’s not news at all but obviously I thought it would be an interesting topic for discussion and some have stepped up to the plate there minus you; as far as I know the Reading campaigns and movements in the country are entirely Indonesian run and funded things, so obviously some locals think it’s an issue, even if they may as timdog suggests be barking up the wrong imitative tree, and perhaps should be delving into their own traditions instead and coming up with more culturally appropriate strategies.

    If you don’t read books fine, I hardly read books anymore I’ll admit, except children’s, am currently reading (aloud) “The Magic Faraway Tree” to my boy; it was actually my favourite book as a youngster but I’ve entirely lost the childlike imagination that you need for it and it seems pretty silly to me now but gee my son loves it to death, I have to fight my way out of his room at night ignoring his demands for another chapter, which is nice in a way.

  10. Lairedion says:

    Orde Baru has done a great job on limiting literature to the extent Indonesians have lost interest in reading books. Nowadays only FPI sanctioned books are more or less allowed.

    I mean I really want to read Playboy….

  11. vojo says:

    Like David, I used to be a voracious reader, but now too it’s mostly children’s books. And Indonesia Matters, plus I balance that by reading Ross’s Right Angle.

    I agree poverty is not the reason Indonesians don’t read. My wife’s parents spent a small fortune sending their four children to the best private boarding schools they could, but forbade them from reading novels of any kind because “reading was a waste of time.”

  12. indahs says:

    Re. Indonesian reading habits, I would skip blaming on cultural and poverty. I would rather point out the easier access (and interesting) to read books compared to other mass media mediums such as television, DVD, blu-ray, internet, IPOD, IPhone or BB. Not to mention all those electronic games for children! I heard from a friend that it is easier to babysit her kids in front of television than reading them books. I wonder how many Indonesian mothers/babysitters who have similar experience as hers!

    I am not sure what it is looked like now with book/ publishing industry in Indonesia. When I was a kid, it was easy to get translated English books (mainly published by Gramedia) with reasonable price. And there were many interesting children book authors like Djoko Lelono – who was at that time my favorite author beside of E. Blyton and A. Hitchcock. I remember that twice a month my father and I went to Gramedia bookstore or flea markets for books hunting. I also exchanged books with my school friends so I am pretty sure that there were Indonesians who love readings during their childhood. Unfortunately, there were no libraries provided for children. It is not necessary a fancy building, Indonesian government could provide mobile libraries service to villages or even cities. I wish we had that during my childhood, so then I could save up my pocket money to buy other thing other than books 😉

    Anyway, by the changing era, reading books as a hobby for me is lessening after internet booming and I could afford photography gears myself. Well, yeah, I still reading Indonesia Matters, Harry Potter and some other news website.. old habit is hard to break I guess 😉

  13. Lairedion says:

    I don’t know about reading but English continues to be a problem. This banner is hanging at Istana Merdeka. 😎

    “The Hohourable” Julia Gillard MP

  14. diego says:

    that’s horrorible !!!

  15. Aprianti says:

    Ya, that’s humorable 🙂

    Agree with Indahs that internet booming as well as sinetron booming is somehow responsible for the decreasing interest in reading among Indonesian children. During my childhood, when TV stations were not as many as they are now and internet only appeared as a tool in sci fi movies, I had no option left then reading my collection of “Lima Sekawan” from Enid Blyton, Tintin, Bobo, (what a wonderful memories).

    Anyway, I would suggest another approach to incite the interest in reading, reading revitalization so to speak. Since Indonesians love pictures more than words and love chatting more than reading long passages (proven by so much interest they show in social networking), presenting books in cartoon/comic format might have a better approach – and probably culturally appropriate? – for Indonesians. I currently collect some science books in cartoon format published by KPG (Kepustakaan Populer Gramedia) like “Kartun Fisika” which is the translation from “The Cartoon Guide to Physics”, “Kartun Kimia”, etc. They present science theories in attractive comics with conversation bubbles and all. Seems childlike but maybe worth trying. They might as well try to make comics about history, politic, FPI…

  16. Oigal says:

    Reminds me of the Indonesian Airline with the logo “FLY IS CHEAP” should be subtitled “WE IS INEPT”

    No one expects fluent English however if you are going to use it on International Banners and logos…spends 20 cents and get it right or you just embarrass the nation.

  17. Lairedion says:


    It’s hard to eradicate laziness. Can anyone remember this?

    Visit Indonesia 2008. Celebrating 100 Years of Nation’s Awakening

    Appeared almost anywhere back then. Bikin malu wae….

  18. venna says:

    “Indonesia (or Java anyway) does have a significant textual tradition – there’s whole archives full of babads out there, but these are not the same thing as books.”

    Yea, this is pretty interesting point. Java had rich texts but I doubt it was accessible by common people. I remember when I was a child I wasn’t allowed to touch the “kitab kuning” that were locked in an old tall wooden cupboard. Only some respectable elders that allowed to open and read those books, so I assumed I had to be wrinkly and sneaky enough to steal the key. Once my dad taught me to read the “arab gundul” from one page of the kitab kuning, and it was fascinating. I don’t remember all the contents but I do know some daily habits and traditions were written there. All seemed make sense to me at that time, and I regret that I didn’t patient enough to sit and learn more. Now most of those kitabs are disappeared when one by one of the elders passed away. No one know where it go, and sometimes I saw some pages scattered outside, but as most “illiterate” people doing, I didn’t care enough to save it. And all that left in me are the memories of the smell of those old dusty pages, the beats in my heart every time I passed the forbidden room, and the hundreds-years white surban that was kept by the elders next to the books.

    But aside from this, I think my generations had enough exposure to books. Lots of 30-35 yrs old people will be able to recall what books or magazines they read during their childhood and teenage era. Some people I know share the same memories of reading Mahabharata & Ramayana comics, si Kuncung, Anita Cemerlang, Hai, Bobo, kho ping hoo, deni’s comic, and enid’s books beside some books from the school library. While we were not able to afford buying magazines, we had rich friends that shared their magazines. Some had expensive glossy encyclopedia collections, but most of the time it just stacked in the glass cupboard with no indication someone ever read those. What a pity. So, yeah, clearly poverty is not always a significant factor why people in Indonesia don’t like reading that much.

  19. Agan says:

    ^Agreed poverty is not the main reason why we don’t have good reading habit; granted if we had money we prolly will spend it on a new Plasma, gym membership, keeping up with the Bakries or whatnot.

    Many of us do not keep books by our bed or carry a book to read while waiting for antrian panjang or during long comfy becak riding so as to makes it easier to steal otherwise lost moments.
    And yes Mbak Venna I too remember when I was growing up my only must read books was only buku silat series by Kho Ping Ho. I just could not wait for next episode and I would discuss the characters, plot twist and turn even with my late grandma -God blessed her soul -who love reading them too.

    Too bad I did not advance to read quality books and even have lost the momentum since.
    Reading habit is a skill that has to be continually nurtured/supported and you’ll loose it if you don’t use it.

  20. venna says:

    Lol!! @ keeping up with Bakries. Yeah, I often found that kind of character. Have more than enough, and even have high quality books collection, yet they are more interested talking about shallow topics like fashion or jewelries.

  21. Michael says:

    Reading has to become a habit for most before they are 8 years old. It is one of the best ways to develop character, explore human experience and develop imagination. A great new book for Muslim’s is ‘Lines from the Holy Koran by a White American Muslim Sura’s 1-3’ a no holds barred book. Check it out. Saltedlightcom

  22. realest says:

    We should have Oprah live in Indonesia and do her magic.

  23. empressnasigoreng says:

    I think many Indonesian are hard wired more into a verbal culture as opposed to reading culture.

    I agree with this. I think it is probably a Western conceit to presume that literary culture is superior to oral culture anyway.

    Another factor might be the linguistic diversity in Indonesia, ie, even though there are 200 million + speaking the official language, is this the language that the majority of INdonesians would choose as their cultural language of expression? A lot of culture is still communicated in regional languages and while that might be sustainable in a performance sense, the economics of publishing written material probably mean that it is less practical to publish in regional languages (and this is assuming that people read and write their regional languages as well as they speak them).

    Also reading is a very solitary pursuit whereas Indonesian life is very much centred around family or group activities. Indonesia has some great poets and playwrights and I suspect this is because these kind of literary endeavours can be performed and enjoyed in a group setting – moreso than a novel or short story.

    Anyway, interesting topic.

  24. Roger Kokasih says:

    Why read, when there are plenty of sinetrons on TV and does not require long attention span. 5 minutes sinetron, 10 minutes advertisement, its plenty.

  25. mikael says:

    yeah i really envy those cunnamulla intelellectuals sticking their noses in derrida! if only i can go past transmitting my thoughts by conking two empty coconut shells together!

  26. ET says:

    Poor families would naturally prioritise food, school fees, and school textbooks, over the purchase of recreational reading material.

    Not to mention the purchase of handphones and pulsa.

    I think Indonesians are avid readers. All the time I see them reading SMS, even while driving a car or motorcycle.

    But seriously, couldn’t the lack of interest in reading among Indonesians have something to do with the poor grammatical clarity and the fuzzy vocabulary of Bahasa Indonesia itself? I myself speak 6 different languages among which Indonesian and I still find it the most difficult and frustrating one to convey or understand a complicated text or message. So I think it may be understandable if people just give up, put the books aside and look at pictures instead.

  27. mikael says:

    but seriously @ET couldnt your “indonesian comprehension” problem have something to do with the poor clarity and fuzziness of your brain after too many watered down beers at top gun?

  28. timdog says:

    But seriously, couldn’t the lack of interest in reading among Indonesians have something to do with the poor grammatical clarity and the fuzzy vocabulary of Bahasa Indonesia itself?

    Well, the obvious way to answer this question would be to take a look at Malaysia, and see how much reading gets done there. I couldn’t say for certain, but my impression is that people, including those reading in Malay, are a good deal more bookish there than they are in Indonesia, which, if true, does away with your theory.

    Malay/Indonesian has a more established status as a literary language in the peninsula than it does in the archipelago. It was used as a language of chronicles and poems there long ago, and as a “modern” literary language too at a fairly early stage (by “Munshi” Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir first); amongst the islands it was generally an uncouth, uncultured tongue, used as a lingua franca.

    In any case, as far as I understand it from people who know the language, Chinese, despite its wacky writing and weird tones, has a similarly “poor grammatical clarity” to Indonesia, absence of conventional tenses etc, yet is a very “literary” language with an awful lot of readers…

  29. ET says:

    I can’t speak for Malaysia and China but a market of 240+ million is a tremendous potential for publishers and translators. Yet one hardly finds translations of classical nor modern Western works in Bahasa Indonesia. This could corroborate my theory that the language itself – which as you said yourself was mainly used as a lingua franca for trading within the archipelago – didn’t evolve into a literary and scientific tool suitable for elaborated transmission of ideas. Some time ago Malaysia has tried to replace English with Malay in their curriculum but they had to back out due to the sheer impossibillity of he task in respect of accuracy and comprehensiveness.

    It may of course also be a chicken and egg question: no books means no readers and no readers means no books.

  30. timdog says:

    But ET, my point was that the same language was very much used as “a literary tool” from an early stage in mainland Malaysia, which I would have thought rather negates the idea that there some kind of linguistic deficiency in Indonesian itself…

    Also, if you do to Indonesian bookshops – there are branches of Gramedia all over major cities – you’ll find that there actually are rather a lot of translations available. The popular ones seem to be translations of books about Barak Obama, Jesus and business management – or about teenage vampires. But the classics, and modern literary novels, are there too (I get the impression that a lot of these translations are not very good ones in terms of conveying style, and that Indonesian readers might be forgiven for thinking that Ernest Hemingway wrote in the same voice as Joseph Conrad, but my Indonesian doesn’t stretch to the level of literary critique unfortunately). And there are, of course, serious modern literary novels in Indonesian too; it’s just that not many people read them.

    It may of course also be a chicken and egg question: no books means no readers and no readers means no books.

    I think this has a lot more to do with it than the language itself. I mentioned in my earlier post about Indonesia not having a “reading culture” in the way Europe or India did and do. This is only exacerbated by the fact that the language which was used for serious literature in the archipelago, and which has a body of “classics”, (namely Javanese, which extended in usage well beyond Java), was effectively sidelined and shunted back into its ethnic/geographical confines before mass-literacy and modern mass-printed books developed…

    Now here’s an interesting pondering point – what kind of literary culture might Indonesia have had if Javanese rather than Malay had been chosen as the key language during the birth of nationalism and “Indonesian identity”?

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