Wanted in the bookstores: Literary canon
The Jakarta Post
Jakarta, posted: Sun, March 30, 2014 | 11:12 am
Visit any bookstore specializing in imported books from the English-speaking world and the chances are you will find non-fiction and fiction bestsellers as well as a significant amount of classics that are the pride and joy of a country or a culture.
The giants of British literature like William Wordsworth, William Shakespeare and Jane Austen are never hard to spot, as are the titans of American literature. They stand on the shelves waiting to be purchased and read by eager minds and literary enthusiasts.
You can even decide on the edition; the cheap paperback by Penguin or the ones with more flashy and artistic covers from the same or other publishers.
Now browse through our regular local bookstores; you will find contemporary local books and translated bestsellers. However, classics are few, especially in Indonesian literature.
You might find Chairil Anwar's anthology of poems, Aku Ini Binatang Jalang (I Am a Wild Animal), selected poems of the great Sapardi Djoko Damono and the complete poems of the working class hero Wiji Thukul.
Sadly, you won't likely find collections from other first-rate poets like WS Rendra or Sitor Situmorang. It is not even always easy to find the poems of the much-celebrated Taufiq Ismail who has made quite a reputation fighting illiteracy.
Likewise, classic short stories are scarce. AA Navis' masterpiece, Robohnya Surau Kami (The Collapse of Our Mosque) may be widely available, but his complete anthology is reportedly out of print. Iwan Simatupang's short stories renowned for their existentialist theme are also rare nowadays. Classic plays are extreme rarities. Where are Sanusi Pane and M. Yamin's plays that capture the richness of Indonesian history? Where are the plays of their successors?
Novels probably fare better. Classics by the much-esteemed Pramoedya Ananta Toer, NH Dini's romance novels and some books of the Balai Pustaka era are widely available. We can gladly add Muchtar Lubis and Ahmad Tohari to the list. However, many books by other authors remain absent in popular consciousness. And while a book should not be judged solely by its cover, its packaging should reflect the cultural worth of the content.
Indonesian literary canon is not entirely available to us ' implying we are not literate and cultured enough. Aren't we supposed to be living in the postmodern age in which we constantly refer to the works of the past? The sad truth is that we are not that literate yet, and it is a good idea to focus on a modernizing project to make buying, reading and enjoying literature our habit.
Our usual culprit is philistinism of society. We have long been content only with material achievements. We can get life values easily, from motivators on television shows. Literature is seen as the stuff of study instead of objects of passions and cultural pride. Philistinism ultimately explains publishers' reluctance to publish from the canon, turning instead to motivational books and contemporary fiction for the reason that we all know too well.
Publishers should give canon a chance for exactly the same reason they are now ignoring it: maximum profit. Our classics are rich, readers are ever growing, our school curriculum demands books and our critics are still preserving and promoting classics.
Our classics simply need to be available to the reading public; and in this visual age, they'll need proper packaging to become 'objects of desire'. A bit of promotion backed by intellectuals will definitely get the ball rolling. The book industry should be on the front-line in battling philistinism; we critics, academic and reviewers will do all the talking.
We want the opportunity to indulge in reading what the poet Matthew Arnold states as 'the best which has been thought and said'; to practice some 'cultural hedonism' that will result in the enrichment of people's mind and soul.
The writer is a lecturer in the Faculty of Humanities at Andalas University, Padang, West Sumatra.