The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Sunday, December 11, 2011


Last week I realised that I don’t have to go to Singapore.

This illumination occurred in the back seat of a car travelling at night between Surabaya and Malang, via Mr Bakrie’s contribution to the environment. I certainly smelt the Lapindo mud volcano, but otherwise didn’t notice.

That’s because I was reading Hitch 22, the memoirs of the Anglo-American columnist Christopher Hitchens.

It’s a book that I probably wouldn’t have bought. Published last year it’s priced around $ US 27 (Rp 240,000) and most difficult to find in Indonesia.

I kept reading during the three-hour trip because I’d downloaded the book free from the public library in New Zealand where I’m a member onto a back-lit E-reader. Six hours time difference and 8,000 kilometers are no deterrent. The system works 24 / 7.

My wife cruelly dismisses this revolutionary marvel as ‘your toy’, inferring, I suppose, that I play with it rather than her

Play? This is education, information and work because the device also allows access to the world’s best newspapers. That’s provided I can get close enough to a fast-food shop’s WiFi system without actually having to eat its Styrofoam buns.

Indonesia has the lowest Internet penetration rate is Southeast Asia – around seven per cent. Only a fraction of that number has access to high-speed broadband, so the uptake of E-readers is still low.

Not abroad. You see the pseudo paperbacks in doctors’ waiting rooms, airport lounges, government offices and every place where the public is treated with contempt. No wonder the big bookstores overseas are literally closing their books.

I resisted for some time, seduced by the argument that an E-reader didn’t have the feel and smell of a book. There’s pleasure in savoring the design, typography and layout found in a good hardback.

All true, and when I saw an original King James Bible on tour to celebrate the 400th anniversary of that magisterial work, I beheld an object of great beauty.

However I could hardly read the text, not because it was in Old English but because the columns were too narrow and the ink had bled into the grey paper.


That’s not the situation with my E-reader. I can adjust the font size and control the screen’s brightness. No need to find stained beer coasters for bookmarks. That job can be done electronically. So no need to drink.

Of course there are downsides. It’s difficult to show off your erudition with a slim slab of black plastic, when sagging shelves display your tastes and character through the books you’ve bought and supposedly read.

Try bragging about your E-reader library when the system deletes borrowed books just two weeks after downloading.

It took time to choose the toy, whoops, device that best suited my needs. I’m glad I didn’t buy the market leader. Although the price was reasonable the purchaser is locked into buying books from the US supplier that reportedly won’t accept foreign credit cards.

The key is to make sure your machine can accept books in e-pub format, the system used by the Guttenberg Project, which has thousands of out-of-copyright titles free to download and keep.

As an author I should be opposing this trend. If people don’t buy my royalty stream will be reduced to a trickle. But Indonesians treat copyright like all man-made laws – with derision. I’ve been losing money for years through photocopying, so why worry?

What’s Singapore got to do with all this? Those of us who make visa runs to the silver city justified the trip by spending hours in Borders and coming home with 20 kilos of books.

Instead I can now go to the local Immigration Office and get a visa renewal under a sign warning me not to pay bribes. I followed this splendid advice and so spent four days waiting for the magic stamp while others brought plump envelopes with their documents and were out in a flash.

But no worries. I passed the time profitably by getting through a couple of hefty novels. The wattage may be as dim as the bureaucrats, but this E-man can read anywhere. Duncan Graham.

(First published in The Sunday Post 11 December 2011)

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