If only books were cheaper… (Credit: KJohansson)

Reading is Hard in Indonesia

Overpriced books make reading a hassle.

I adore books in their physical form. As they say, books are a lot like boobs; on screen is okay, but they’re more fun when you can touch them. But, as I walk through the bookstores, I lament at the stress my lovely wallet will be subject to. As much as I love books, I need those red and blue bills to survive. Sure I could swipe a card, but I usually feel really guilty later on. I need to buy that novel, even if it costs me an arm and a leg, just because it looks so cool!

Walk into any bookstore in Indonesia and you can see how expensive books are. Teenlit novels — the junk food equivalent of literature — can cost someone around IDR 60K (that’s around 4 bucks); whereas imported novels in mass marketed paperbound can reach IDR 100K upwards. In Indonesia, that’s a lot of money, perhaps equivalent to 2 days worth of food at a nice small warung. This means that only the privileged middle-class can read books. And yet surprisingly, it’s actually hard to find someone that likes reading. Sure, with the advent of tablets and smartphones, they could be reading e-books. But for me, real reading happens when you read actual physical books. When I read real books, I take it slower and enjoy flipping pages and getting high on that “new book” smell. I don’t have anything against ebooks or audiobooks, though. Different strokes for different folks.

Back on topic. No wonder Indonesians don’t like reading. Books are really expensive! Instead, they consume “junk food” in the form of cheesy tabloids, comic books, and interest magazines. Yes, I do not regard comic books as “real books”. Sue me.

To add to that, the “good” books — such as biographies, classical literature, and newest novels — are only available in a chain of bookstores in special locations, usually upscale malls. Though there are libraries spread in schools and universities, the people only go there to leech free Wi-Fi. The collections of books at libraries are dismal and sit on shelves gathering dust as the visitors prefer to sit at tables and ponder into their gadgets.

There are also mom-and-pop bookshops, but they mostly carry a limited stock of books of limited variety as well. Second-hand bookshops are also cheaper, but their stocks are also limited, like the ones in Ubud. Most of them are full of junk novels. In Jakarta, if one is familiar with the underground, they will have access to a trove of pirated books sold at a fraction of their real prices. These books are low-quality illegal reprints of the original book. Though illegal, it’s a way for the less privileged to access books.

But there has to be another way to provide legal and (almost) free access to books for the people. Occasional book fairs come to mind. Every year, the giant bookstore chain holds a book fair where people can find books at a discounted price. But these discounts are only limited to the junk food-level books. Very rarely can you find a translated version of War and Peace in the bargain bin!

But maybe the problem is not solely because books are expensive; maybe the people just don’t like reading. Though the government has tried to make libraries more mobile (imagine, we have a library van that drives around town carrying free books), it sees very few visitors. Maybe we just don’t have a reading culture at all.