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“I could not live without books,” the bespectacled Dessy Sekar Astina Chamdi said, beaming from ear to ear. The initiator of Forum Indonesia Membaca (Indonesia Reading Forum) is proud to be a hardcore bookworm.
Sekar, as she is known, says she would rather do without her mobile phone than have no books in her bag. “I could not leave home without a book. Even though it is only a brief foray, I always make sure I have books in my bag,” the 38-year-old said. Her addiction to reading has taken its toll on her eyesight which has now reached minus five.
While most Indonesians regard books as a tertiary need, Sekar considers them her primary need. She equates reading to eating and sleeping.
“I eat while reading. I wake up and close my eyes with reading,” the lady said during an interview with The Jakarta Post.
The first child in her family, she says that her strong bond with books stemmed from early exposure to libraries. She recalls her father taking her and two younger brothers to libraries in Jakarta at the weekends when she was still in elementary school.
“While working, my father was still a student, so, he left us there in the library for three hours while he took classes,” she recollected.
Being the child of a struggling family, Sekar enjoyed the routine library visit. She saw it as the family’s picnic time since they could not afford to go to amusement parks. Libraries became the family’s weekend escapade and Sekar credits the ritual as the origin of her passion to reading.
Sekar grew up as a book fanatic, spending most of her time looking for places with free book collections or books at affordable prices. Now the owner of 6,000 books, she did not allow her family’s poverty to stop her from slaking her thirst for literature. Libraries and rental book stores became her haven. During high school, she hung out in a cheap book store in a traditional market in South Jakarta, mingling with the local thugs and traders.
It was her experiences at that market that led Sekar to her current work in the Indonesia Reading Forum. The group is dedicated to slaying the myth that Indonesians do not like reading.
“They do not read Kompas [Indonesia’s major daily] but Lampu Hijau [the capital’s scandal sheet], but who can blame them with their education background.” She refers to her friends in the market, who also read despite their poor education.
“Those campaigns saying Indonesian people do not like to read are false. We do read, but not fiction or literature or even Roman script, as many Indonesians only read Arabic or Javanese alphabets. It doesn’t matter as long as people read,” she added.
People’s enthusiasm for books makes the work of promoting reading, which is the focus of the Indonesia Reading Forum, a lot easier.
The forum has been around since early 2000 but started making serious moves as an organization in 2006. Its programs revolve around empowering community libraries and promoting local literacy movements. The members of the organization have reached 100 communities, scattered around Indonesia. The forum also holds a festival for the annual World Book Day. Sekar has been festival director since 2007.
Unfortunately, the forum missed this year’s celebration for several reasons, including Sekar’s decision not to take part in the event being fully occupied with a corporate-supported local library empowerment program in Bojonegoro, East Java. Sekar expected local communities to take charge of the festival in her absence.
“World Book Day belongs to everyone, so I think it’s time for our friends in the region to be the driving force, while we concentrate on other things,” she said. The forum plans to continue to promote local literacy movements and assist in the development of community libraries all round Indonesia.
Libraries are not just about buildings or book collections but the spirit and culture of reading. For a chemistry graduate, Sekar knows a lot about library management thanks to her life as a devoted library visitor. Spending most of her childhood moving from one province to another following her father’s work, Sekar always visited the local library, a habit that lasts until now. Whenever she goes traveling, she never misses the local libraries.
“Libraries are window into the culture of a place,” says the woman who has traveled to Sulawesi, Sumatra, Kalimantan and remote places in the eastern part of Indonesia to stimulate people’s reading habits and support book collections. Books have not only broadened Sekar’s knowledge but opened her adventurous soul.
The avid traveler says she wishes to go to Papua, the easternmost island of the country, to see how the local people treat their books. Together with a friend, Sekar has put together a workshop on book-making, a craft that will provide solution for secluded regions.
The workshop encourages local people to make books on their own and build their own collection, instead of just waiting for supplies of printed books that take a long time to reach parts of Indonesia with poor infrastructure. With the program, the still-single lady hopes to meet her two obsessions of travel and teaching people to appreciate books.