Hera Diani, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta
Features - September 07, 2003
A muggy Tuesday night in the third week of August was time once again for the book club bacabaca (from the Indonesian for reading) to hold another meeting.
Nine people gathered in an apartment in Kuningan, South Jakarta, each clutching a copy of Of Love and Other Demons by Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Sitting cross-legged on the floor in the living room, circling a wooden table and munching snacks, the group discussed the tale of a love affair between a middle-aged priest and a teenage girl believed to be possessed by demons.
Everyone shared a nugget of their literary observations.
A.S. Laksana from akubaca publishing company said Marquez was always careful in selecting characters' names for his books.
Rizadini Haryanto, an employee of QB bookstore, commented on how Marquez's journalism background influenced the plot, while Hikmat Darmawan spoke about how the Colombian writer was skilled in spinning a romance.
All the opinions showed the members shared one definitive thing in common: a great love of the written word.
They are also bucking the established notion that Indonesians are loath to pick up a good book.
"We'd heard enough about the low reading habit among Indonesians. So, we thought we just start from ourselves as we all love books," said Hikmat, an editor and translator in a publishing company.
Along with fellow members Rani E. Ambyo and Rizadini, they recruited several friends -- mostly in their late 20s and early 30s and working in the publishing field -- to form the club about four months ago.
"We appointed one person to be the moderator in our monthly meeting. All books are in English," said Rani, adding that the readings were not limited to any one genre and that comic books were already on the agenda.
A former resident of Bandung, West Java, Rani had started a club there three years ago, as well as setting up a book shop called Tobucil, a name taken from the Indonesian for "small book shop".
"I often got annoyed, however, because many of the members there hadn't read the book like they were supposed to. They came to the meeting because they wanted to know what kind of book it was. So, it would end up with only one person doing the talking," she said.
The books discussed were limited to Indonesian works or those translated from other languages.
"It was almost impossible to discuss English books. They were not very familiar with books in English, perhaps because the access to English books in Bandung is very limited."
It is the reason she established the book club in her new home of Jakarta, a place she said where people were more "literate" and access to books was better.
For Ditta Amahorseya, the head of corporate affairs of Citibank's Citigroup, the problem is getting Indonesians to join her club.
Ditta is the lone Indonesian in the club, established 11 years ago, among a group of expatriate women.
"I've given up asking my Indonesian friends because they are not committed. They never showed up again. After several attempts I gave up because I feel embarrassed," Ditta said.
She said many of the book clubs in the city were organized by expatriates.
Ditta's club consists of women of various nationalities, whose professions range from businesswomen, consultants to housewife.
"Our membership is ever-changing, because the expatriates move a lot. We meet monthly, except for summer and December, because at that time, the foreigners usually go back to their home country," Ditta said.
Each member recommends a book, and then a vote is taken on which will be read for the next meeting.
The books discussed are award-winning, critically acclaimed works, or best-sellers, and must have been published within the past three years. Most are fiction, but an occasional nonfiction work, such as a biography, is put on the agenda.
"I wish there were more contemporary Indonesian books being translated into English. It's a pity that I can't recommend Indonesian books. We only have discussed two books by (noted local authors) Pramoedya Ananta Toer and Mochtar Lubis. Even then we had to break the rules because both books were published in the 1960s."
Despite the problems of getting Indonesian members and books, Ditta said being a book club member was rewarding.
Her knowledge and references have been broadened and enriched; she is now familiar with many writers she never knew before, such as from Germany and Morocco.
"We also learn the discipline to read regularly. There's even homework for each member to read another work from the same author whose book are being discussed. And then we're always eager to look for a new book to recommend," she said.
Ditta remains optimistic that more Indonesians will join book clubs and that a true reading habit will one day become the norm, not the exception.