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Reviewed by:
  • The Indonesia Reader: History, Culture, Politics
  • Andrew Goss
The Indonesia Reader: History, Culture, Politics. Edited by Tineke Hellwig and Eric Tagliacozzo. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2009. 488 pp. $94.95 (cloth); $25.95 (paper).

This is an excellent debut in a new series of World Readers from Duke University Press. With more than 150 selections, two leading Indonesia scholars have put together an original introduction to Indonesian society, politics, and culture. It achieves variety, yet remains coherent through its thematic selections. The Indonesia Reader is a well-made book in every sense: the translations, about one-fourth of them prepared for this book, are excellent; the contextualization before each selection is sharp yet not overbearing; and the production value is high. The few photographs are a nice touch, although visual sources are not its real strength. The reader is divided into ten chronological sections, each one with an introductory essay laying out themes, and a bibliography of both classic and recent research monographs. About half of the book consists of material from after 1900. Most of the selections will be new, even for the Indonesianist, and I enjoyed reading every one. The selections do reflect the interest and expertise of the editors—late colonial history and Indonesian literature—and I thought that in those areas the choices were most original and apt. Other themes also stand out. The dozen or so selections about twentieth-century violence, scattered throughout the last half of the book, vividly show how larger political changes often were accompanied by brutally personal violence. And there are many individual gems, including a newspaper article describing recent attempts to save the Komodo dragons. The texts are short, averaging three pages, and in many cases excerpted [End Page 744] from a larger work. A detailed index will be a great finding aid. This is the book I would refer colleagues to if they were looking for an introduction to Indonesian history and did not want to plow through one of the recent general histories.

This is a far cry from the readers about Asian cultural traditions produced two generations ago. The Indonesia Reader has very few examples of normative texts that we should take as authoritative statements about what Indonesia and its culture, religion, and peoples are. Social history is the preeminent interest of the authors. The texts illuminate what the experiences of people living in Indonesia have been like, with many about individual responses to nature, strangers, or violence. There is a whole section of travelogues, and many other choices are first-hand accounts of a memorable encounter. And where a more general argument about history is being made, for example about the scope of the twelfth-century trading empire Srivijaya or Dutch imperial administration outside of Java, the editors have generally opted for an excerpt from scholarship. This decision makes the reader easy to use, especially, I would think, for teachers and researchers of world history who are not already well read in Indonesian history.

The question raised at least implicitly in most selections concerns the identity of the Indonesian people. The invention of Indonesia at the beginning of the twentieth century is covered effectively. But the Indonesian nation is not the leitmotif, not even for the twentieth-century material. In fact, the editors chose documents that demonstrate the continued fluid nature of Indonesian society, where for centuries cosmopolitan associations were valued and travelers brought trade, religion, and technology to locals who adopted these for their own purposes. There are no essences or absolutes. Nor is this reader Java-centric, as many texts illustrate the diversity of peoples, classes, and religions we now associate with Indonesia. This is true for the included nationalist texts as well. The one selection from Sukarno's oeuvre is his June 1945 speech explaining Panca Sila, his five principles for a united yet diverse Indonesia.

After finishing the book, I was left with the impression that when the editors tried to find sources that would open up Indonesia to newcomers, they were drawn toward those texts that explained how to get there. The reader, taken as a whole, suggests to me that Indonesia has been chronicled, mapped, and...


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pp. 744-746
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