Sunday, July 20, 2008
  Double Booked - Shopping and Sex

Having trawled through my archives, I realise that my heading is a serious understatement. Books are a very large part of my life as, I've already noted, they are with the majority of university educated westerners. I added "Shopping and Sex" because they sell books, and, hopefully, this blog.

Reading is currently a topic of concern to a number of Indonesian bloggers. Tasa Nugraza Barley has an article in the Jakarta Post suggesting that Why Americans Are Smart is because they have access to public libraries.

I don't want to get into an argument with Tasa about relative 'smartness', although another article I've read in the past week does state that despite spending $230m (£115m) an hour on health care, Americans live shorter lives than citizens of almost every other developed country. And while it has the second-highest income per head in the world, the United States ranks 42nd in terms of life expectancy.

One in six Americans, or about 47 million people, are not covered by health insurance and so have limited access to healthcare. As a result, the US is ranked 42nd in global life expectancy and 34th in terms of infants surviving to age one. The US infant mortality rate is on a par with that of Croatia, Cuba, Estonia and Poland.

The Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen, who developed the Human Development Index (HDI) in 1990, said, "Human development is concerned with what I take to be the basic development idea: namely, advancing the richness of human life, rather than the richness of the economy in which human beings live, which is only a part of it."

What Tasa is writing about is "the richness of human life". Not everyone can afford to spend the time seeking it when finding basic essentials, such as food, clothing and shelter is a daily struggle.

Tasa points out that according to the Jakarta Library website there are only six public libraries in the city. What he doesn't mention is that their online katalog lists a mere 15,929 books. Considering that there are 500 books in Jakartass Towers, that on average I probably read a book a week, and have therefore consumed nigh on 3,000, a fifth of Jakarta's total stock, and feel immeasurably richer because of it, then this city sinks even lower in my estimate of its HDI.

Reading should start at home, but as yet there isn't such a culture. Thanks to the bad old days of Suharto's New Order, Indonesians became literate, able to read and write at a minimal level, without critical comprehension. This is because, again thanks to the bad old days of Suharto's New Order, Indonesians were not encouraged to follow up their new found literacy with opportunities to practice it.

Books, magazines and newspapers were banned if they had any hint of criticism, and journalists and authors such as Mochtar Lubis and Pramoedya Ananta Toer were imprisoned. The artists deemed to be 'communist' in 65/66 were 'disappeared' and those who had pens could only use the 'ink' approved by the central government.

"You can't beat Becky Bloomwood and her Visa card!"

The number of fiction books now available may be translated from English, but you have to start somewhere and in this reformasi era, the free market rules. Although folk seemingly have a greater choice of reading material, it's generally a matter of buying into what is profitable. 'Safe' authors such as Agatha Christie, Sidney Sheldon and, more recently, J.K. Rowlings are readily available translated into Indonesian, and Chick Lit or, as it's known here, Sastra Wangi (fragrant literature) has recently taken off in a big way, generally as it caters to the lowest common denominator and the dominating interests of young women - shopping and sex.

Ask any teenager what s/he has recently read and it will either be an anime comic or a magazine reflecting a particular interest, sports, cars etc. A few may read the new genre of Teen Lit but very few. Unfortunately, the current schooling system is force fed multi-choice test-orientated with little outlet for imaginative story telling or creating. Unless a student is in a school with an international curriculum, there will almost certainly be no course work involving the reading of fiction, and school libraries will generally have reference related to the curricula.

In the UK and the USA, local governments are generally responsible for the public libraries. Here, I believe central government should prioritise them as part of the education budget. However, bearing in mind that it was the Scottish-American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie who 'donated' a network of libraries, then maybe some Indonesian oligarchs could follow suit, here.

After all, whilst James Riady is investing c.$12 million in a Singaporean university, shouldn't charity begin at home?

Dirty Books

Whilst you're still here, I just want to say that I love browsing along the bookshelves of homes I visit, of exchanging good tomes and times with friends. You get to know folk this way. Any visitor to Jakartass Towers is equally welcome to judge me by my covers.

I make an effort to visit second-hand bookshops, of which there are very few in Jakarta. What I generally find are thrillers and such which can be described as plane and train books because they pass boring time. As such, they're fun and if a semi-serious read is wanted, then writers such as John le Carré and Ian Rankin offer superior fare.

But I also find books which could be described as literature because you know that one day you'll re-read them and discover something new or it will be like renewing a friendship. All the books I have here are in this category; they're yellowing and pages are beginning to fall out so I lovingly wield the Pritt stick. Being second-hand they also have a story to tell. Where were they bought new, and by who? How did they get here? If they talk, what would they tell us about beds they've rested beside?

Not all agree with me, however. Chas Newkey-Burden, a journalist and author, has done what many bloggers try to do: write something really controversial and sit back as readers take him to task.

He says that he can't stand second-hand books.

For me, as a literary experience, they are akin to sloppy seconds, a salad bar in a staff canteen at the end of a hot weekday, or a recently-vacated cubicle in a public toilet. Let's be clear: I don't merely have a mild preference for buying brand-new. No, I'm digestively squeamish about used books. It's all those stains, thumbprints and creases that get me so queasy. I'm far from a gentle reader and by the time I've taken in the first few chapters of any brand-new tome, it will often be creased and coffee-stained beyond recognition. But they will be my creases and my stains, and that's what matters.


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