Why even bother reading, when reading is such a useless activity
Many people like to say reading is important, but they rarely explain why. It might turn out to be such a useless activity after all.
Essay – second article of a three-part series | Read the first part of this series here
There have been various articles decrying Indonesian people’s low reading habits, an issue we already touched upon earlier in the first essay for this three-part series. However, when you look at most of the stories expressing concern about Indonesia’s very low literacy habit, most of the journalists or the observers interviewed on this issue do not elaborate deeply why reading is an important activity.
In this case, it’s almost become a platitude that reading is highly important. The kind of folk wisdom that nobody cares about, which never gets practiced in real life.
In my previous writing, I myself also expressed a little bit of skepticism on the importance of literacy culture, since reading books does not automatically transform someone into a better person.
I remember during one of my training sessions to become a journalist, many, many years ago, the instructor gave us an essay titled Talking to Strangers by Paul Auster. He prefaces this piece by stating that writing is, in essence, a useless activity. So, why bother dedicating ourselves to a useless endeavor?
If writing is practically a useless activity, then the same thing can also be said of reading books. If reading books is supposed to enlighten a person, how come some avid readers have seemed to become self-righteous or develop a sense of superiority because of their knowledge?
I once joined a reading circle in Ubud, Bali, shortly after I moved here for a new job. Over time, the reading circle started to be taken over by so many mansplainers (the majority of them are, unfortunately, old white men, which kind of reinforce the stereotype). I found the reading club’s atmosphere to be totally disrespectful, with members interrupting each others’ speeches all the time.
I also found some of them to be highly condescending, particularly when it came to criticizing someone else’s idea, or command of the English language. They either implied that the person was stupid by cutting that person’s speech right away and arguing where he went wrong. Often, they also smirked when other people talked. One of them told me honestly: “You know what Ogi, when a person is so intelligent, he just can’t help but look down on other people, ‘cause he sort of has high standards.”
I recall one instance in our reading circle meeting in which two members (who both happened to be Americans) practically got into a spat with each other during a discussion session. Jason got mad because once again, John interrupted him while he was talking (I have changed both men’s names). It was actually the first time in my life I saw someone melt down during a book club session. Then, when some other member thrashed Jason’s book recommendation on WhatsApp group, that was the last straw for him. He abandoned the book club WhatsApp group in cold rage, without even having the courtesy to say goodbye – and he’s never been in touch with anyone from the book club ever since.
They really should rename themselves the “Ubud Mansplainers Fight Club”. Might sound attractive to the swole, macho digital nomads who you can find aplenty here in Bali.
I followed suit not long after that. I also left because of a shouting match. During one of our meetings, an Indonesian book club participant, Joko, talked my head off about how feudalism had destroyed Indonesia, meanwhile, another participant was trying to grab the group’s attention with his speech. He ended up yelling: “JOKO, ENOUGH!” which ultimately won him the entire group’s attention.
Get off your high horse - an idiom that comes to one's mind when literature and intellect serve no other purpose than to show off one's brilliancy
I found hearing and seeing another person being told off harshly in my presence completely triggering, although I was also annoyed by Joko’s obsessive lecture. I left the group and have never come back. I think Ubud Reading Circle is a very inaccurate name for this group. They really should rename themselves the “Ubud Mansplainers Fight Club”. Might sound attractive to the swole, macho digital nomads who you can find aplenty here in Bali.
Again, these people are highly intelligent. Apparently, they are all voracious readers, throwing references here and there, impressively pulled out from their photographic memory bank. I found some of their sermons/lectures on global history, politics and economy to be quite stimulating and eye-opening. Yet look at the way they treat other people. Plus, being an avid reader does not necessarily protect you from racism or other types of biases. Some of these reading circle members also often make condescending remarks about Indonesia being a backward country. Here and there I also heard some sexist and homophobic remarks quipped by these readers. And they have all read books on feminism and racism. Apparently, it doesn’t help.
Speaking of biases, once I heard a rumor about a very prominent Indonesian politician. The politician, who has earned a fair share of notoriety for his brash use of religious and primordial sentiment to polarize people, was in actuality an avid reader and an intellectual. His opponent, someone who is more pluralist and tolerant, is actually not a reader at all. So, yeah, probably reading can at least be a useful leisure activity you use to while away your time, or to boost your ego so you can mansplain in various reading circles and assert your dominance over other people you consider to be intellectually inferior.
Or, maybe you like to read about various tragedies and scandals involving other people or nations so you can feel better about yourself. Now, I have to admit, I also frequently indulge in this sick pleasure of reading stories of people who end up in destructive romantic relationships or family dynamics, so I can feel grateful that my life is at least not as fucked up as theirs. After all, as writer Barbara Kingsolver wrote in her novel The Lacuna, we love scandals and tragedies, as long as they are not ours. Ever wonder why dystopian novels are so very popular? Or memoirs/autobiographies detailing one’s fall from grace, for that matter?
Perhaps reading has no use at all to turn us into more compassionate human beings. If, having read this far, you have also been convinced that reading is a useless activity, feel free to stop reading right here.
Baca Rasa Dengar, our idyllic reading club in Jakarta
Let me be honest with you. I threw in a little bit of drama to open this article just to grab your attention but in essence, hopefully it can prompt us both to reflect on this “useless” little activity called reading for a bit. Because the Ubud reading circle is not the only story I have here. When I was still working and staying in Jakarta, I used to be involved in a different book club called Baca Rasa Dengar.
The reason why I was shocked by the Ubud bibliophile crowd was because my experience in this Jakarta-based book club was very decent. Simply put, we always found a way to finely balance intellect and emotions in our discussions, with the right amount of abstract concepts and lived experiences. We always listened to each other, rarely interrupted each other and never judged each other despite our different ways in seeing things.
My recollection of our togetherness has given me the premise of this article: that reading is important, but reading alone is not enough.
What impressed me most about this group: I have never heard any single racist, sexist or homophobic/transphobic remarks ever in my six-year involvement with them. We have also become friends. Our togetherness was sadly cut short because I was laid off from my job in Jakarta and I had to move to Ubud, Bali because I was not able to find work elsewhere in the capital.
However, being “stranded” for 2.5 years as an anak pisang (English translation: an alien) in Bali – who belongs neither to the locals nor to the expats – I have come to deeply appreciate my discussions with Baca Rasa Dengar, contrasting it with my experience with the pretentious Ubud crowd. But most importantly, my recollection of our togetherness has given me the premise of this article: that reading is important, but reading alone is not enough. You also have to keep an open mind, curiosity, and above all, empathy, much of what I find lacking among the Ubud book people. Let me explain how these elements can be helpful, using my firsthand experience with Baca Rasa Dengar.
A curious matter of confirmation bias and blind spots
Based on my experience with the Ubud Mansplainers Fight Club (uh, sorry, I mean Ubud Reading Circle), you can still read many books and still be a racist, a sexist and a homophobe. Reading various non-fiction and literary books about colonialism, racism, sexism won’t do any good in turning you into a more inclusive, tolerant human being, because guess what? All of us humans have something called the confirmation bias.
The only way for us to break through our own confirmation bias is through our own curiosity.
We tend to seek out and believe in information which basically reinforces our own belief systems and discard those which challenge them. Let’s say I am anti-capitalist. No matter how many experts or books tell me about the benefits of capitalism, if I don’t consciously seek to go beyond my own biases, I will simply discard these ideas. In the end, I might simply use these opposing ideas to cement the premise with which I entered the conversation, that capitalism is nothing but destructive.
The only way for us to break through our own confirmation bias is through our own curiosity. I witnessed this happening among the Baca Rasa Dengar participants. We recognize that all ideas and ideologies are human-made, therefore must contain fallacies. Although we still take a stance of siding with the disenfranchised populations, we also attempted to open our minds to the benefits of capitalism as well as the limitations of Leftist thinking. We recognize that this is essential for us to remain nimble in our thinking, not to become too rigid in our beliefs or ideals, lest we end up becoming extremists.
Furthermore, books can sometimes force us to confront our own blind spots or biases. I believe we also have to be open or humble enough to admit we have done something wrong simply because we did not know any better. An instance for this: in 2017, I wrote a short fiction for the Bali Post newspaper and it included a rape scene. In 2018, I read a book called Boys Will Be Boys by Clementine Ford in which she wrote that male writers often included rape scenes in their stories for shock value and that this was totally unacceptable.
I was totally awash with shame when I realized what my blind spot as a cis-male person had made me do in that particular short story. But Ford basically helped me confront my own blind spot and since then, I have become totally careful when it comes to talking about some sensitive subject such as sexual assault against women, being aware that as a man, I might be prone to being insensitive when discussing such subject matters.
Unmasking what's called 'confirmation bias' by adopting an open minded and curious attitude - manifested in intellectual humility
Recognizing biases and blind spots
Furthermore, as part of this curiosity aspect, I have also learned a concept called “critical reading” from my book club mates. When we read a text, we have to be aware of our own biases and blind spots, which might cause us to subconsciously discredit the ideas in the text we read before we even take them into consideration.
However, we also have to be aware of the biases or blind spots of the writer of that text, for us to be aware of the limitations of his/her text and remain skeptical of his/her ideas, while at the same time still remaining receptive to the kernel of truth that the author seeks to illuminate. This is important so we do not become impressionable. When we read a text, we have to ask ourselves: where does the writer come from? What is his or her background? What could possibly be his or her political or business agenda? How do all these things, when combined, result in biases or fallacies or loopholes in his or her writings?
My favorite example to illustrate how we can put critical reading into practice is Naomi Klein’s 2008 The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. The book gave us the impression that the free market ideology is pure evil, that institutions such as the World Bank or International Monetary Fund (IMF) were the sole actors to blame for the 1997 collapse of the Indonesian economy. Although this was true to a certain extent, this did not represent the whole picture. Klein’s premise is informed by her strong anti-capitalist stance, and this is how the story she presents becomes incomplete.
So, the next step of critical reading, after identifying the biases of the author and where they might fall short, is to basically identify the text or reading material which can probably give us a more balanced perspective on the issue at hand.
Still on the subject of the 1997 economic crisis in Indonesia, I found Kevin O’Rourke’s book Reformasi really helpful in making me see the whole picture of the issue. In his book, he described the corrupt nature of Indonesian oligarchs and how it also played a role in destroying the nation’s economy. He also helps us understanding how (instead of being a one-dimensional evil) the IMF also sometimes gets trapped in difficult situations when it comes to salvaging a corrupt economy such as Indonesia’s. That was the missing piece that Klein did not cover in her book, partly due to her own writing background (she specializes in non-fiction books criticizing capitalism) and political stance.
Your desire to interrupt and contradict other people prematurely comes from a sense of arrogance, this belief that you already know everything and that you don’t need other people.
All in all, isn’t this the essence of what we are trying to do to make sense of life? We can only collect little pieces of truths here and there in order to help us get through in life. We recognize that any text has its limitations, so it’s really up to us to seek out other texts which can address these limitations so as to help us gain a more comprehensive understanding of the issue at hand.
Connecting the dots, seeing the bigger picture
Which takes us into the idea of “conceptual reading”. When we are really interested in expanding our mind in a subject (let’s say it’s about the economies of a developing nation like Indonesia), it’s not only essential to read books/texts written by people who stand on the different sides of the ideological spectrum; we will inevitably venture into other different but related subjects as well.
For instance, after reading Klein’s book, we then went on to read Franz Magnis-Suseno’s brilliant trilogy on Marxism and where it had failed. Then we also read a brilliant criticism of capitalism called Doughnut Economics penned by Kate Raworth. This way, we understood each system had its own imperfections.
We learned about the roots of corruption in formerly colonized countries through a book called Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson. These books are essential for us to understand the issue of the Indonesian economy from a more global perspective. It also really helps that some of our book club members actually have a background in economics and political science, thus helping us all understand some niche jargon and concepts from these specific sciences.
At Baca Rasa Dengar, we implement critical and conceptual reading by listening to other participants, remaining truly curious about their points of view, because we are aware that we do not know everything. Your desire to interrupt and contradict other people prematurely comes from a sense of arrogance, this belief that you already know everything and that you don’t need other people. In Baca Rasa Dengar, instead I discover something about intellectual humility through the openness and attentiveness of its people to other ideas, even when these ideas are contrary to their own.
Unfortunately, the Ubud crowd hates the idea of intellectual humility, because apparently, it ain’t manly. I remember at one time, one of these men made fun of a book title he saw in a bookstore. Picture him talking in the most condescending tone possible: “you know what, a while ago, I saw a book titled “I Don’t Know”. It’s about having the humility of admitting your own ignorance or something like that. I wonder how come namby pamby titles like that have become so popular these days…” Yeah, I know. Of course, for these people, pointing out and making fun of other people’s supposed ignorance is much more fun instead of admitting one’s own.
But, really, what is the use of being involved in a reading circle when the only thing you’re interested in hearing is yourself talking?
Where's the exit? Can't stand your book club drama!
Critical and conceptual reading in action
Ultimately, whether reading is a useful or useless activity depends on what you make of it. I believe that critical and conceptual reading can be useful to the daily lives of us readers.
First, on a political level. To take an example from Baca Rasa Dengar, our disciplined effort to truly understand “what is wrong with our country”, when it comes to socioeconomic inequality and poverty through reading and discussing all the books I mentioned above, has helped us to understand the deep complexity of the issue.
We have become able to see through fancy words and rhetorical techniques to recognize that this charming public figure actually has nothing substantive to say.
This way, we are more skeptical of certain populist politicians who would like to turn certain groups of people (like non-Muslims or the Chinese-Indonesians) into convenient scapegoats, who are blamed as the cause of these economic issues. We have become less vulnerable to political polarizations. Our critical and conceptual reading abilities also help us become less impressionable when it comes to attending talks or panel discussions, especially when these events feature charming speakers who have therefore become famous and popular. We have become able to see through fancy words and rhetorical techniques to recognize that this charming public figure actually has nothing substantive to say.
One example: in 2015, the Baca Rasa Dengar crew were invited to visit an NGO office. The founder and director of this NGO was highly charming… and famous (oh no, double trouble). Then she started giving a long rant basically saying that all the progress that we had seen in Indonesia was thanks only to the grassroots activists (such as herself) because the government, ahem, had done nothing to help its people. Then one of us raised her hand and said: “I disagree with you mbak,” before mentioning about the various ways in which the government has improved Jakarta’s public transport system.
A more practical benefit is: critical and conceptual reading can also help us become more critical consumers. Having worked in the corporate marketing and communications sector myself, I have come to realize just how manipulative this sector can be – basically what we do is hypnotize people with fluffy copies full of adjectives. We have done our jobs so well, too well even, that we have basically succeeded in making people buy junk.
I am talking, partially, about my own experience working as an in-house copywriter for some cryptocurrency companies during the heyday of what was called an NFT then. Do you remember when an NFT of a silly ‘Nyan Cat’ gif-file sold for US$ 590,000 in an auction? The people who bought those NFTs didn’t even own the artwork, for God’s sake.
And now that the cryptocurrency and NFT markets have collapsed, these buyers are left behind with practically nothing. I myself became the casualty of two layoffs of two different crypto-based companies, perhaps it was bad karma for wooing innocent customers into buying worthless assets.
I have a little secret to tell you. I don’t even know what an NFT even means. I don’t even know how cryptocurrencies work, for God’s sake. Yet for a little while I was successful in making people buy these things. When I was writing fancy copies for these products I was just stringing senseless but sophisticated-sounding sentences together without necessarily understanding what they mean or how they work - and you know what? People were impressed!
It seems like a big irony that a propagandist like me should advise people to be skeptical of marketing ploys, but having seen how it works behind the scenes, I think I can be the best person to tell you this. Beware fancy words. When you smell some fluff, chances are, it’s nothing but lies.
How to Protect Yourself from Master Manipulators aka Marketers
My friend and I recently were also talking about how many people had become victims to “instant prop funding” investment schemes. We were trying to comprehend what made those investment schemes attractive; we then looked at these investment firms’ websites, trying to make sense of their incomprehensible marketing copies because the two of us simply did not understand how their investment scheme worked. In the end we still failed to understand how people could possibly make money out of those investment schemes. My friend just said: “Perhaps the incomprehensibility of their copy is the reason why they’re so successful. It helps them to be vague enough to keep their customers in the dark of what their product is really about, but somehow they also succeed in sounding fancy or sophisticated enough to lure people in, because maybe the average reader thinks that if it sounds so sophisticated it can be nothing but great.” When in fact, it’s quite the contrary.
Our low literacy culture and our love for clickbait stories
Finally, critical and conceptual reading can also help boost the quality of journalism, at least in Indonesia. I covered a conference on the future of Indonesian journalism in September 2022, organized by the Alliance of Independent Journalists, with the support of Google News Initiative. In one breakout session, an expert said that the reason why clickbait stories became very popular in Indonesia was due to Indonesians’ low literacy culture. Much of this can also be explained by how the New Order regime basically depoliticized the Indonesian public and curtailed freedom of speech, including press freedom, so as a nation we might not have been used to engaging in quality, in-depth public discourse about issues that really matter.
This low literacy culture has in fact turned so many of us into “shallow” individuals, who are uninterested in learning about “important” things which might seem detached from us but in actuality impact our lives greatly (such as: climate change, disaster mitigation, terrorism, corruption, etc.). Even when our media outlets tackle these issues, the ones which catch our attention are not the ones which carry in-depth analysis but instead the ones which carry the more superficial yet sensational aspect of the incident (remember the meme of the sate ayam seller whose business remained open after the Sarinah bombing in 2016)? Now you know why.
A little note on empathy
Coming back to the Ubud Mansplainers Fight Club. I am sure they are all discerning consumers and critical members of society who will not be swayed by any charismatic politicians. But they all lack one thing: empathy.
Let me illustrate: during one of our Ubud meetings, I actually told one of the men there how reading a book about racism titled Superior: The Return of Race Science by Angela Saini deeply disturbed me as a reader. He then launched into a very long, condescending lecture: “You know what Ogi, there are two types of humans living on Earth. Number one, the shallow type. They are the ones who like hanging out, trying out new cafes and restaurants. The second one is the deep type, who are truly interested in understanding things beyond just the superficial,” he said. I thought to myself: Bravo, man. What a great blanket statement to make. You should really consider running for office.
“If you belong to the second type, Ogi, and if you are mature enough, Ogi, surely you won’t be surprised that terrible things such as rape, genocide happen quite frequently in this world?!” Okay what does that mean, does that automatically “relegate” me to a shallow type? When I told my friend of this experience, she said: “Oh my God, Ogi, he’s like a super strict teacher who hits your hand with a ruler!” The problem is, he is not even a teacher.
If you read books just to stuff your mind with endless facts and figures which you can later spew out at other people just to demonstrate your superiority, you kind of miss the whole reading experience. This is where we get to the essence of reading (and writing) itself, leading us back to the American author Paul Auster who writes the essay I mentioned in the beginning of this article.
Why bother to write when writing is so useless? The purpose of writing, he argues, is basically to hold a mirror to readers, to help them find a way back to themselves. Reading is an activity which helps us reconnect with our own humanity, no matter if we are reading about a story about the totalitarian New Order regime in Indonesia, or when we are reading about Mao Zedong’s China.
This is where I also have to remind myself, although there are times when I read about other countries to feel better about myself, but inevitably, these books, either about China or Russia, fiction or nonfiction, find a deeper resonance within me than just a sense of schadenfreude. Without fail, they always remind me of all sides of humanity, good and bad, light and dark, selfish and altruistic, kind and cruel – both of which exist within every human heart. Which makes reading a scary yet confusing experience sometimes.
Because I know, what has happened to them can also happen to me. What these people have done, I could also have done if I were to give in to my worst, most destructive impulses or hunger for validation and act out on them. But also, still, amidst all these violence, oppression and downright cruelty, there is still kindness and human decency.
Life is so full of ambivalence. A good reading material helps us dive right into this ambivalence, leading us back to the core of our day-to-day experience.
This is why (again) I really like discussing books with the Baca Rasa Dengar group, because instead of just focusing on the historical facts and figures, or the phenomenon of racism and sexism, we also always take our time to reflect on what it feels like to be discriminated against, usually peppered with our very own personal experiences. Moreover, we are unabashedly emotional, as we have normalized showing our emotions (particularly sadness and concern) whenever we discuss books tackling the above-mentioned subject. I feel that by also inserting our own emotions into our discussions, we have somehow been able to enjoy genuine human connection through books which remind us of our own common humanity. Unlike the super-detached, cold intellectual machismo of the Ubud crowd.
I’d like to end this article on this note. Much of the aspects I’ve discussed about critical and conceptual reading are cerebral. But it’s also easy to forget that cognitive intelligence can also be dangerously tied to ego. Intellectual hubris, at a certain point, will lead you to stagnation and self-righteousness. Meanwhile, curiosity and intellectual humility will lead you to an exciting life, in which you continue to grow and evolve and change, in a world that’s constantly shifting.
(Sebastian Partogi, 14.09.2023, Art Calls Indonesia)
The last article in this series will address reasons we can still be optimistic about our literacy culture, despite statistics telling us otherwise.
Sebastian Partogi is an Indonesian writer, journalist, interpreter and translator based in Ubud, Bali. As a literary translator, he has translated the works of Indonesian writers like Ratih Kumala, Djenar Maesa Ayu, Feby Indirani, Angelina Enny and Sindhunata into English. His literary translations have been published in prestigious publications such as Australia's Portside Review and the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival's annual bilingual antology of Indonesian writings. He also handles simultaneous and consecutive interpreters for various events held by local NGOs, most notably the Pratisara Bumi Foundation.
THE NATION WHICH SIMPLY DOESN’T READ - an essay-series by Sebastian Partogi: