In the past, I used to see a Finnish girl, who rode the same school bus with me, reading a book every day during the bus journey.
Curiously, I once asked her, ”How long does it take you to read a 500-or so page book?” She replied, “Two or three days.” As a book lover who needs one or two weeks to finish such a book, I was astonished at how fast this fifth grader could read books that are as long as Harry Potter novels.
I remember traveling to Gili Trawangan Island, West Nusa Tenggara. Every time I went to the beach, I would see foreign tourists reading books while they sunbathed; books seemed to be their best companions.
I have some Western friends on Facebook. Most of them put reading on their profile info as their hobby.
This passion for reading is not merely a hobby, it is a culture. Reading has become a cultural habit for people in developed countries, such as in Europe, North America, Japan and South Korea.
This culture is usually cultivated in the early stages of a child’s life. A mother reads aloud to her newborn baby. She continues to read aloud until her child is able to read by his or herself. This activity is believed to help the baby develop language skills.
The availability of local libraries in every city or district where people can borrow books is also a major factor that leads people in developed countries to become avid readers.
Another strong reason is because reading books is compulsory in school. In elementary schools in Western countries, there is usually a reading corner or library in each classroom that consists of books from various genres.
At certain times, students sit reading assessments. After the test, the teacher guides them to choose just the right books based on their reading comprehension levels.
Finland may serve as a good example in enhancing reading interest and skill. The country that ranked third on reading proficiency tests, according to the Program for International Students Assessment (PISA) in 2009, has been carrying out significant efforts in promoting reading habits among its population.
These include the availability of public libraries with rich reading resources, such as books, newspapers and magazines, and the role of schools, teachers and families in campaigning for the importance of reading.
These efforts are strengthened by good collaboration between organizations and institutions, such as the Finnish Newspapers Association, the Finnish Periodical Publishers’ Association, the Teachers of Finnish Association, the Finnish Library Association, the School Library Association, the Finnish Book Foundation and individual libraries.
Reading is a very important language skill because of the benefits an individual or community can obtain.
First, at school, good reading skills lead students to become successful learners. Most of the time, a student learns from written language learning materials, such as textbooks, handouts, posters and online publications.
The skill to comprehend written language is very important in academic life.
According to Ro Griffiths et al, “We read for a variety of esthetic and academic purposes; for enjoyment and relaxation; to get information; to develop skills; to follow directions; to find our way about; and to help develop an understanding of ourselves and of the world (Reading for Life, 1996).
Reading also encourages people to become successful lifelong learners, as books can be enjoyed throughout a lifetime.
Second, reading can stimulate someone to be creative and innovative. Innovation results from the combination of ideas and concepts. The more we read, the more ideas and concepts come to mind. No wonder, then, that innovations usually originate from developed countries.
Take Japan as an example: the high level of reading in Japan has made it one of the most innovative nations.
Third, reading can promote tolerance and peace. The more we read, the more reflection we make, and the more understanding we can develop about other people’s customs, traditions, religions, beliefs and ethnicity.
For instance, if a Christian likes to read articles or books about Islam, he will likely understand that the core teaching of Islam is to promote peace and justice.
Likewise, if a Muslim likes to read articles or books on Christian teachings, he will likely understand that Christians are taught to love one another.
It can, therefore, help prevent future interfaith conflict. In a country where terrorism and intolerance still exist, Indonesia needs to promote reading so that tolerance and peace can prevail.
Hence, I suggest our policy makers should seriously promote reading in this country. So far, reading has merely been promoted on television advertisements, posters, banners or brochures.
However, we need more effective and concrete ways to carry out this program.
The government should redesign the literacy education curriculum so that it stipulates reading books in classrooms is compulsory. This means, schools have to be equipped and enriched with a variety of reading materials — not only textbooks. Students should be allowed to read all books, both fiction and non-fiction, based on their developmental age and reading skills.
We also need to establish local libraries or reading houses (probably at a subdistrict level), so that people can borrow reading resources. In fact, it may be argued that the low reading interest in Indonesia results from inadequate access to reading materials.
Yes, the government would need to allocate a large amount of funding. However, we as a nation will reap the benefits of this investment in the years ahead. Indonesia needs people who have a passion for reading so that we can achieve wisdom, prosperity and peace.
A reading culture is a very important ingredient for us in becoming a developed nation.
Although it will be a challenging journey, with willingness and commitment we can definitely achieve this dream.
And in the future, people reading books on buses, trains, at airports, and during recreation will be a common sight every day in our country.
The writer is a teaching assistant at the Jakarta International School.