The Thinker: The Need to Read

Indonesia has been an independent nation for more than 64 years, but the standard and quality of life for the majority of our citizens is still far behind that of other countries in the world, even some in our own neighborhood.

Among the many problems facing the nation, one of paramount importance that has escaped the attention of government is the low level of interest in reading.

Our human resources are lacking due to the lack of a literary culture. This is described accurately by our great humanist, Taufiq Ismail, who has pointed out that in Dutch high schools a student is expected to read 25 books over three years and to write 36 essays a year, whereas their Indonesian counterparts are only required to write a single essay each year, and no such reading list exists.

So don’t be surprised if the country known for the Javanese proverb gemah ripah loh jinawi (prosperity, happiness and fertility) remains far behind other nations in any number fields. Our nation is unable to effectively manage its assets because of a lack of mastery in science and technology — due in part to an undeveloped culture of reading.

Indicators of the absence of a literary culture can be seen in the decline in our national newspaper circulation figures. According to the Indonesian Journalists Association (PWI), in the last year national newspaper circulation has decreased from 4.5 million to 3.5 million copies. Similarly, the availability of books in Indonesia is also very limited.

Now look at China — with a population of 1.3 billion — which publishes 140,000 new book titles each year. Malaysia, with a population of 26 million, puts out 10,000 titles, while Indonesia, with 220 million people, manages to publish only 10,000 books.

If these conditions continue, the nation risks missing out on progress and losing out to other developed nations.

But how does a culture of reading begin?

Building literary skills involves more than just providing books. It means building habits of reading and learning that develop thinking and behavior. A generation which reads little must become a generation which enjoys reading and learning. The reality is that a major program of cultural reconstruction is needed in order to boost the quality of the nation’s human resources.

Strategic steps can be taken to make this happen. First, encourage a reading culture. So far, the government has taken few concrete steps to foster this. The only visible example has been within the framework of the national press, which annually sponsors a program to encourage students to read. This is only a gesture, however, that should be followed up with a national program, at the initiative of the government, to support reading habits and produce meaningful results. The government must dare to declare a cultural or national reading movement as soon as possible.

Second, address the urgent need to establish more libraries, not only in universities and city centers, but also in kindergartens and remote rural areas. These should include government as well as community-owned, independent libraries so as to familiarize communities with books and the habit of reading to broaden their information horizons.

And lastly, reduce the cost of books, the price of which in Indonesia is quite high, beyond the reach of many. The high price of books is caused in part by the many government regulations that are not conducive to book publishers.

I believe that if these three tasks are successfully achieved, slowly but surely the community’s reading habits will improve. With better reading habits, people will have a better knowledge and understanding of science, technology and the arts, to the benefit of the welfare of society as a whole. This will inevitably improve the quality of life and standard of living of the Indonesian people.

To build a national culture of reading is, in the end, no easy matter. As the English proverb says, “we first make our habits, then our habits make us.” That is, if we want people to have a penchant for reading books, they should become accustomed to reading from an early age.

If the love of reading is nurtured, then the culture of writing will follow automatically. Together the two will guarantee national progress. Hopefully, the United Indonesia Cabinet will make reading a priority as part of its effort to improve the quality of our human resources.

A reading culture is key to the progress and success of the nation.
Sholehudin A Aziz, OPINION, The Jakarta Globe. 13/1/2010.

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