Radhiyya Indra, Jakarta – Every month, with no introductions or discussions, total strangers go online and spend an hour of their time reading in front of their cameras.
The clock strikes 3 p.m. one day a month and the people will stop what they are doing, open their laptops, join a Zoom meeting, and just read the book they have to hand together with the others.
Throughout the hour, no one says a thing.
This event is called Baca Bareng (reading together), a gathering organized by the Indonesian Silent Book Club community, a movement that originated in the United States. But unlike many other book clubs or gatherings, its participants get together to just read – no discussions whatsoever about the books they bring.
"I've enjoyed reading books ever since I was little," graduate student Pradita "Dita" Artha told The Jakarta Post on Mar. 5. "But these last couple of years, my interest and desire to read hasn't been as great as it used to be," Dita added.
And so, stumbling upon this atypical book reading club on social media, she joined the February session on Zoom, intending to read just a couple of pages of Banana Yoshimoto's Kitchen that she had put off for a while.
After an hour passed, she realized she had read over 70 pages. "I found the joy in reading once again with this activity!" Dita said, buzzing with excitement.
The Silent Book Club actually started in a physical space in San Francisco, in the US, in 2012. Now with over 70 chapters around the world, the club found its way to Indonesia in late 2019. Avid readers get together in a small coffee shop or library and just, you know, read. No introductions, no ice-breakers, just a bunch of strangers huddling to start their reading.
"Meeting new people in this space is such a joy," Indonesian Silent Book Club initiator Hestia Istiviani told the Post on Mar. 6.
The "bookfluencer" has a personal – and rather emotional – motivation for starting the community. "Personally speaking, I'd just broke up at the time and felt that I had no one left to accompany me reading," Hestia shared.
After moving from Surabaya to Jakarta, and finding out about the Silent Book Club, she then contacted the community's representatives in the US to get permission to set up an Indonesian chapter, which they graciously granted.
"Creating this Baca Bareng gathering as [part of] the Silent Book Club was one way for me to get the 'reading in company' atmosphere in public spaces," she explained.
But she also saw that many people were afraid of being judged when reading in public. "By keeping them company, hopefully they are encouraged to read more comfortably," she said.
Indonesian readers share the same sentiment. The Baca Bareng session is never short of participants, albeit with no one knowing each other. More than 60 people joined the fun last month.
"I first heard about the Silent Book Club way before the pandemic; I found its session at a small library," 23-year-old author Firnita said to the Post on Mar. 3.
Ever since then, Firnita has joined its gatherings every two to three months, all the way to the online sessions when the pandemic hit.
In the work-from-home era, where the culture of not turning on the camera to show your face is often permissible, Firnita found the online session – which requires its readers to show themselves reading on camera – a bit awkward at first.
"But I've found more similarities between offline and online sessions now," she said as that awkwardness melted away. Something that remains in the session's virtual space is the feeling of togetherness.
"We'll be reading a book, and then for sure, we start to lose focus, so we take a break to look around and realize 'Oh, there are people who are still reading, just like me,'" she explained.
She can now point out some people who often come back to the online meetings despite having zero conversations with them. And who knows, they might get to know each other off-screen.
"It's easier for me to read here instead of reading alone, which usually results in me reading one or two pages before being distracted by my endless phone-scrolling and eventually abandoning the book," said Firnita.
Reading boost during pandemic
For 46-year-old civil servant Desyanti, the Silent Book Club is more about personal enjoyment as she considers herself to be an introvert.
"I'm not someone who likes joining a club or community. I enjoy doing things alone," she told the Post on Mar. 3.
But after reading the club's description, she found the Silent Book Club's activity suited her. She would join the Zoom meeting and everyone instantly dived into their own book worlds. After an hour, they take a picture together and bid goodbyes.
"It still feels like me reading alone. Together, but not saying a word," she explained.
In the last Baca Bareng session, she got to read 30 pages of a nonfiction book – quite an achievement after her reading drought during the pandemic.
"I bought a lot of books early in the pandemic days, but I kept putting off reading them," she said, noting the pile of books she has amassed.
The same problem occurred with Dita. "I've been trying to spend more time reading this year," she explained.
Both of them eventually found a way to turn their reading drive into actual reading time through the club.
"After joining [the Baca Bareng session], I feel like I can spend a little more time reading. It doesn't need to be an hour, of course, but at least I can read every day," Dita said.
Thanks to its online version, Desi and Pradita are among many who are able to participate in the Jakarta-based Baca Bareng sessions, from Bandung and Purworejo, respectively. Online participants now extend across the country.
Total focus: Pradita Artha, one of the Silent Book Club's participants, finds the 'reading in silence' activity rewarding. (Personal Collection/Courtesy of Pradita Artha) (Personal Collection/Courtesy of Pradita Artha)
"I'm happy seeing people's enthusiasm [about the community]. I did not expect for this to be accepted by a lot of people," Hestia said.
The loose, no-membership system seems to be appropriate for readers who only want to read together in silence. And it is this very system that Hestia hopes to become ingrained among people in the future.
"I hope there will be more similar silent book clubs [in the country]," Hestia said. "Such an initiative is very easy to imitate and apply to anyone's environment. Perhaps one can start with their two or three close friends," she added, hoping that such habits would flourish.