Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Paperback Raita

Education is the key to becoming a fully rounded human being, or so they say. For your Indonesian Bambang or Dewi Average however, the education that they are liable to receive at a common or garden state school is unlikely to be particularly enlightening, or encourage much in the way of free thinking either for that matter.

So what does that leave us with? Television? As noble as the ideals of those working at the start of the great goggle box era may have been, I think that it's safe to say that the mental slurry that the tube shovels into our grey matter via eyes and ears for six hours a day isn't particularly edifying either, although there are notable exceptions.

So that leaves us with reading I guess, and the educational potential of the DIY approach. Not that this isn’t also fraught with problems. Hitler and Stalin were pretty much autodidacts and products of public libraries. It’s sobering to think of Adolf and Joe getting to grips with the Dewey decimal system. I wonder how big an unconscious effect the isolating silence of the traditional public library had on these two great dictators in the making, as they cobbled together their solipsistic ethical systems.

These days, there’s always the Internet too of course, however the closed communities, instant feedback loops and global reach that the web allows for seems to be even worse at breeding a whole generation of conspiracy theory fruit bat loon balls, all pumped up on their own mouse clicking paranoia.

But enough of this effete badinage. I decided to go old school this week and check out Jakarta's public library system. In fact, I was quite looking forward to a brief return to dog-eared pages and shelves of musty print, as I recently purchased an e-reader and have been hard at work depriving the world authors of royalties via dodgy downloads ever since.

Just to digress for a moment, I heartily recommend these new gizmos. They store a ton of books and, most importantly as far as I'm concerned, sport the new e-ink technology. Basically, your average e-reader is a whole lot less sexy than an iPad, but its screen is not backlit, meaning no more eyestrain than a real book. And I say this as someone whose excessive computer usage has bored holes in his occipital lobes. Friends of mine remain cynical about the time-honored technology of the book being usurped by these devices however. "I don't believe in these e-readers, Simon," one sighed at me.
"I can assure you that they really do exist," I countered.

Down at Library@Senayan in the Ministry of Education building at the bottom end of Jl. Sudirman though, it was a solid return to deforestation as the primary method of information transfer. My first attempt at some hardcore bookworm action was based on various archive pieces that I found on the Internet claiming that the library was now open until 8 p.m. and hailing a new era for Jakarta's libraries, which would now still be open for access by office workers when they knocked off for the evening.

I thus eagerly turned up at about 6 p.m. and alas had only tumbleweeds blowing around my ankles for company. Closed. Harumph. I wonder how long the 8 p.m. closing initiative lasted. Possibly as long as Busway lanes free of cars, smoking prohibitions in all public buildings and motorcycles being forced to ride on the left...about two weeks perhaps.

My second attempt to gain access to this hallowed hall of learning proved more successful however. I headed upstairs and found that the library houses a sizeable English language book, audio and DVD library, which was largely inherited from the British Council. Presumably my British homeland doesn't have the cash to run the thing any more, what with the current financial squeeze, Conservative Prime Minister and rapidly drying up Libyan arms money. Double harumph. In fact, I read recently that a number of British public libraries are set to close, a move that has spawned a wave of bespectacled librarian riots across the country.

Library@Senayan is still open for business however, and its members start off in the Basic category, before graduating to Regular membership after one year and Premium membership after two years. Alas, Basic membership allows readers to borrow a miserly one book only. Triple harumph.

I thus declined the opportunity to join, still in a thrall to my e-reader, and instead went on a mini-tour of the bookshelves on a quest for the most tedious book titles that I could find. Among the gems I chanced across were, "Pesticides 1999", "Crofton and Douglas's Respiratory Diseases Volume 2" and "Security and Crime Prevention in Libraries." Someone clearly has a sense of humour with that last one. An honorary mention should also go to, "Tackling Alcohol Together", a weighty tome that perhaps doesn't tackle the subject from the angle that the somewhat ambiguous title seemed to suggest at first glance.

All of these seminal works and more can be yours for the borrowing, taking home, reading and forgetting about until you receive an overdue notice, down at Library@Senayan. Ignore several of these notices at your peril, as you will eventually find your house surrounded by an elite squad of heavily armed Indonesian police librarians demanding through megaphones that you emerge from the front door with your hands on your head kicking the book in question in front of you. Good luck out there bookworms.