Book Review: The Indonesia Reader

Book cover image courtesy of Duke University Press Books.

Book cover image courtesy of Duke University Press Books.

As I packed my bags to start life as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant, I faced a dilemma. Like many Americans preparing to leave for Indonesia, I wanted resources to learn about the country I was planning to visit. As I threw together my t-shirts, mosquito spray, and toothbrush, however, I realized how little I knew about the country I would live in for a year. Even though Indonesia is the fourth most populous country in the world, it can be hard to find information about it in the states. Beyond Eat Pray Love, there simply aren’t a lot of mainstream books about Indonesia.

Luckily, a friend recommended The Indonesia Reader: History, Culture, Politics, a collection of essays and documents edited by Tineke Hellwig and Eric Tagliacozzo and published by Duke University Press. As I’ve journeyed through Indonesia the past few months, this book has been an indispensable resource.

The Indonesia Reader is an ambitious book. It attempts the nearly impossible task of covering thousands of years of history and culture, beginning with early Javanese civilizations from the fifth century and ending with cultural debates in Jakarta from early 2006. As a result, it doesn’t give much detail on any one topic. It is certainly not a complete source on Indonesia, but then, it doesn’t intend to be. Instead, The Indonesia Reader collects diverse aspects of Indonesian culture in one source, giving readers a brief look at many different areas. It won’t make you an expert on any given topic, but it has more than enough content to spark your interest.

The book is divided into ten sections organized by theme, headed by titles such as “Cultures in Collision,” “High Colonial Indies,” and “Through Travelers’ Eyes.” These sections are arranged in approximate chronological order, each one headed by a brief historical overview of the period. For me, the most interesting essays are those that deal with contemporary cultural issues, like Dede Oetomo’s “Gays and Lesbians in Indonesia,” in which the prominent gay rights activist describes a growing gay and lesbian counterculture. Another personal favorite is “The Politics of Bare Flesh,” written by Jakarta-based journalist Desi Anwar in response to the anti-pornography legislation of 2006. Others might enjoy Sukarno’s 1945 Pancasila speech, in which he outlines the five pillars of Indonesian democracy; or professor Robert Cribb’s scholarly account of the mass killings in Java during 1965-66. In fact, the book’s greatest asset is the diversity of the pieces it includes: there are selections on urban prostitution, recent religious violence, and even an interview with one of the 2002 Bali bombers. For those interested in literature, the book also includes excerpts by Pramoedya Anata Toer, Indonesia’s most famous novelist, and Chairil Anwar, a revolutionary poet and icon.

Though wide in its breadth of coverage, some of The Indonesia Reader‘s pieces would benefit from more introduction or context. As a result, this book is best used as a jumping off point, or as a companion piece for other more detailed resources. Still, though The Indonesia Reader is by no means comprehensive, it is a good place to start for anyone beginning to learn about the region. For me, it has become a go-to source as I explore Indonesia, containing at least a taste of almost every topic imaginable. As I browse the many selections, I am reminded of the vibrant, varied, and chaotic nature of this country that I’m learning to love.

The Indonesia Reader: History, Culture, Politics
Tineke Hellwig (Ed.), Eric Tagliacozzo (Ed.)
2009, Duke University Press

“…[T]aken together (these selections) show some of the arc of Indonesia’s histories and societies over the centuries, from geographic, cultural, political, economic, and religious points of view. The Reader is a primer for anyone who wants to know why Indonesia looks the way it does today.”
— Pg. 11, The Indonesia Reader

About the author: Catherine Brist is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant based in Medan, North Sumatra. She graduated from Arizona State University in 2012 with a degree in English literature. Before joining the Fulbright program, she participated in the Critical Languages Scholarship program in Malang, East Java, during the summer of 2011.

One thought on “Book Review: The Indonesia Reader

  1. I purchased this book at a bookstore in DC during our pre-departure orientation for CLS! Read only a small chunk of it during the LONG journey to Indonesia but your review piqued my interest in it once more. I’ll have to find it on my bookshelf and check it out again this winter break.

    P.S. I love the Fulbright writers’ posts Indonesiaful

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