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I love a bookstore.  I think it says a lot about a place, a people, a culture.

Whenever I am in a new town or even someplace I know well, I seem to eventually – usually within the first 24 hours – end up wandering the aisles of a bookstore. I don’t even need to be able to read the books.  I just love the idea that there are people there who do read the books, write the books and think about the books.

So after seven months in KL, I have been disappointed with book culture.  There are a few large bookstore chains, though mostly in English and/or in  Chinese.  Books in Malay are mostly religious texts in some way.  Friends have introduced me to three independents – one Chinese, and two mostly English.  But that seems to be it.  Malaysians have explained to me that this is a result of government language policies.

When I was in high school I stumbled on a biography of Dag Hammarskjold.  I remember in the book there is an anecdote about Hammarskjold answering an interviewer’s question about his favorite book.  His answer has rolled around in my life ever since.  I can’t remember the details – the name of the biographer, or the exact circumstances of the quote, but his response went something like this, “My favorite book is a translation of Don Quixote made into old French”.   But, his belief in language and in literature led me to China, Japan and now to Indonesia.

So, until stumbling into Gramedia Books this evening, I had mostly written off reading culture in Malay, a lingua franca is still interesting.  At 6:30 pm this Saturday evening I stumble into a two-story bookstore.  My first contact is of course on the wrong floor.  English magazines, luxury pens, designer coffee table books.  Not empty but not crowded.  In the middle of the floor I find an escalator leading down to the lower floor.  There I could have been at the Borders at Santana Row in San Jose.  Children, adults, teenagers, all browsing, sorting and many camped out on the floor with a stack of books.  Maybe killing time waiting for the evening to begin.  But there are a lot of ways in Jakarta to kill time.  These teenagers choose to read a book.  I admit that many of the books are romance novels or Harry Potter/Twilight/Louis Cha (gong fu novels), but they are all in Bahasa.

So, I start to wander the stacks, stepping carefully over the books and the people on the floor.  You have everything that makes a great bookstore and serves as evidence of a reading culture.  Translations of classics from English, Chinese, Japanese, French sitting side by side with mysteries – Agatha Christie, Dan Brown – next to local writing Pramoedya Ananta Toer, others I couldn’t recognize.  I was curious about the section on religion and philosophy, expecting to find like many of the bookstore chains in Malaysia aisles of Islamic texts and little else. But, Nietzsche next to of course Heidegger, books on Buddhism, Christianity, and the full wealth of Islamic thinking, Sufism, Khalil Gibran, rows of different histories, Javanese interpretations of Islamic texts, … and that is only what I could make out.

Tomorrow I am off to more conservative and some would say more cultured Yogyakarta, so we’ll see whether my opinion of Indonesian reading culture continues.

I think there is some relation between a culture’s confidence and its ability to deliver itself fully in a language.  In China, Japan and Korea we are blessed with the creative efforts of these writers.  Though I do believe that Western readers don’t have enough access to them.  India has so fully embraced English, many would argue that the best English prose being written in the world today is Indian.  So, my hopes are high for Indonesia.  When you trip over two girls reading together a Bahasa translation of “To Kill a Mockingbird” – one girl in traditional tudong and the other in converse sneakers and a ponytail, you gotta believe that something is brewing.

Oh, by the way, I am off to Yogya for a two-week language course.  So, I guess I am biased.

More to come. If you are reading this blog and you have suggestions for writers who are writing in Malay, please post below.  Even though I am still a long way from reading novels in Malay, I like to keep something on the nightstand as an inspiration.

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