When he was still a kid, Bisma Aryono fell in love with reading – not least because of his parents who always encouraged their son to develop a passion for the written word.

JBC Booth

JBC Booth at Indonesia Readers Festival in December 2015

“We actually had a family tradition”, the 35-year-old recalls. “On the weekends, my parents always took me to the book store, and I was allowed to choose one book, whichever one I wanted, and they would buy it for me. Even though it was only a comic book or a graphic novel, my parents didn’t mind, as long as it was a book”. It was then that Bisma turned into a bookworm – and this hasn’t really changed until now. However, while Bisma thoroughly enjoyed his favorite pastime, there weren’t many people he could share it with. “It’s not easy to find people in Jakarta who love to read and have a great knowledge about pop culture,” he says. One of his friends, Astrid Claudia, then told him about the Jakarta Book Club – and Bisma was hooked. “I joined the club last year in September,” he explains. “After my first visit, I came back every month. I think I have never been absent. Even if I have another appointment, I am trying to move around my schedule so I can still come to the meet up”.The Jakarta Book Club was initially founded by Shirley Christie in 2010, an avid reader since her early childhood.

JBC officers

JBC officers: Aulia Halimatussadiah, Dina Sandika & Shirley Christie 

“I was feeling kind of lonely and wanted to find a community of people who also like to read. I then found out that there were several book clubs already available in town but they were quite disconnected to each other and didn’t have regular events where you can actually meet and engage in discussions,” Shirley says. Recognizing the lack of an active book club, Shirley decided to establish one herself. She contacted some book stores in the city that welcomed her idea – however, after one year, Shirley realised that her initial concept – have the members read one book and then get together to discuss it – needed to be improved. “Some people had trouble finding the book or thought it was too expensive, or were embarrassed if they couldn’t finish reading it on time,” Shirley explains. After a hiatus, she met Aulia Halimatussadiah, usually referred to as Ollie, at a business conference.

JBC Members: Christian Putra, Reading aloud a short story by Haruki Murakami

JBC Members: Christian Putra, Reading aloud a short story by Haruki Murakami

“We became good friends, and one day I had this idea to revive the book club,” Shirley says. Ollie herself is an author and the creator of Indonesia’s first online self-publishing platform nulisbuku.com. “Ollie had experience in managing a local startup, so I learned a lot from her,” Shirley recalls. “I learned how to start something new without funding, she taught me how to network with people”. Ollie suggested using the online social networking portal meetup.com as the base for the book club. Meetup.com facilitates offline group meetings and enables members to find and join groups of shared interests. It turned out that Shirley was able to recruit a lot of book lovers through the online portal. In November 2014, Jakarta Book Club was reborn and meet once a month at different locations. Instead of selecting one book as basis for discussion, Shirley has implemented a new approach: there are monthly topics, such as poetry, thriller or romance. Everybody can pitch in with suggestions for upcoming themes. At the beginning, Shirley saw a huge turnover for each event, as people only showed up when they were interested in a certain theme. After a few months, however, it became clear that there were some loyal members who already felt connected to the book club. “The meet ups are very organised, because we want to fit in everything into three hours,” Shirley says. “Sometimes, people bring wine and cheese or some cakes, so we have something on the table. Usually, we start around 11 am with reviewing five to six books for the chosen theme, and we have book auctions, and book swaps, and discussions”.  

JBC Meetup

JBC meetup on erotic literature at Hard Rock Cafe

While at the beginning it was mostly the founders who would present a book review, more of the members have begun to step up lately and share their view of the books they have read. “The book review during the meet ups also serves as training for me to speak in public,” Bisma says. Astrid, who recommended the Jakarta Book Club to Bisma, says that joining the monthly meet ups has helped her make new friends who share the same interest. “I also found out about interesting books that I haven’t read yet, and which give me new ideas,” she says. “I started reading when I was a kid – apparently I could read before I could count. I enjoy detective stories and thrillers, and one of my favourite authors is Agatha Christie. But lately, thanks to the book club, I have been learning more about other genres as well, so I’ve started to get into non-fiction as well”. Both Astrid and Bisma make it a point to read every day. Bisma, who is currently obsessed with Stephen King’s novels, admits that he even has a book shelf in his bathroom. “I spare some time each night for reading before I go to sleep, even though it is only five pages or so. I also take my books – or my Kindle – everywhere with me,” Astrid says.

JBC meetup

Reading together is fun!

The Jakarta Book Club currently has around 1600 members on meetup.com, but the monthly gatherings are limited to 35 people only. There is no membership fee – potential new members simply have to register at meetup.com and then reserve a spot if they want to join the next meeting. “We usually have a look at the crowd and if everyone is Indonesian, we will speak in Indonesian, but if there are foreigners – we currently have three members from abroad who regularly join, from Canada, Australia and Singapore – we will use English,” says Shirley. “We are encouraging people to read more books by Indonesian authors,” she adds. “Most of us read English books, but we also have a good sense of Indonesian literature which we want to share with the others.” Although Indonesia was the Guest of Honour country at last year’s Frankfurt Book Fair – the biggest book fair worldwide – Shirley doesn’t see a raised interest in literature back here.

One of JBC's regular Saturday meetups

One of JBC's regular Saturday meetups

"Unfortunately, we don’t feel an immediate impact,” says Shirley who thanks to the book club’s recent monthly topic of poetry fell in love again with the works of Khalil Gibran and Pablo Neruda. While reading may still not be a favorite pastime among Indonesians, the Jakarta Book Club gives readers the chance to share their passion for literature with others – and the members are grateful. “We all have one thing in common,” says Bisma. “Through reading, we open up our minds for something new”.

For more information, visit www.jakartabookclub.com

Katrin Figge

Katrin Figge

Katrin Figge is a previous editor of NOW! Jakarta. An experienced writer and avid bookworm.