Here I will try to centralize the books I’ve read about Indonesia and to write a short review of them.
Books highlighted with bold characters are recommended read. In light grey, books I don’t particularly recommend (only my humble opinion).
Best books to read during a trip to Indonesia ?
You are just looking for a good book to learn more about Indonesia while travelling ? I would recommend :
- If you are looking for a novel : The Rainbow Troops by Andrea Hirata.
- If you are looking for a book to understand Indonesia : Indonesia Etc. : Exploring the Improbable Nation by Elizabeth Pisani (sold in every airport).
A short review of both books can be found further below.
- [Sold in airports] Elizabeth Pisani – Indonesia Etc. : Exploring the Improbable Nation (2014) : the best introduction to the country by a former Reuters local correspondent turned public health consultant who knows the country quite well.
- William Frederick & Robert Worden – Indonesia : A Country Profile, Library of Congress (1993) (downloadable here)
- C.I.A. – The World Factbook : Indonesia (available online here).
- Edward Aspinall & Mada Sukmajati – Electoral Dynamics in Indonesia. Money Politics, Patronage and Clientelism at the Grassroots (2016) : a collection of regional case studies written from the inside. Truly unbelievable.
- Edward Aspinall & Ward Berenschot – Democracy For Sale. Elections, Clientelism And The State In Indonesia (2019) : more academic than the previous book, but covers a much broader scope of the corruption issue.
- Peter Bellwood – First Islanders. Prehistory and Human Migration in Island Southeast Asia (2017) : recent and very interesting book by one of the world best expert in the region’s archeology. Clear explanations about early human presence in Indonesia (Java Man, Flores Man …), prehistory of Indonesia and the Austronesian expansion.
- M.C. Ricklefs – A History of Modern Indonesia Since C.1200 (4th edition, 2008) : the reference book about Indonesian modern history.
- N. Tarling – The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia : Volume 1, From Early Times to c.1800 : a good complement to the first book as it starts way before. Only parts of the book are about Indonesia.
- [Sold in airport] T. Hanningan – Brief History of Indonesia: Sultans, Spices, and Tsunamis: The Incredible Story of Southeast Asia’s Largest Nation (2015) : I’m probably not in the target audience of this book but for me it didn’t work (even though I like the author as a travel writer). It felt like reading the history part of the Lonely Planet enriched with additional striking or surprising episodes. This book is written to entertain so you keep jumping from one region to another instead of establishing the logical progressions of events. If you are looking for an actual history book : buy Rickliefs’.
- Ida Pfeiffer – A Lady’s Second Journey Round the World (1855) : Pfeiffer was an Austrian explorer who traveled the world in the 19th century. Between 1851 and 1853, she spent many month in Indonesia visiting the interior of Borneo, Batak highlands in Sumatra and Seram. Her travel were extraordinary and she wrote about it. Large parts of her journals are about confused geographical details and comments about the colonial society. Still an interesting testimony of a pioneer era for passionates. Inspired A.R. Wallace.
- [Sold in Airports] A.R. Wallace – The Malay Archipelago (1869) : maybe the greatest traveler that ever explored Indonesia. Would be qualified as blatantly racist by today’s standard. Yet this remains an invaluable testimony of a time when travelers were bringing back seminal scientific theories alongside dozens of new species identification rather than stupid Instagram pictures.
- F.M. Schnitger – Forgotten Kingdoms in Sumatra (1939) : pleasant read about an archeologist exploring Sumatra’s past.
- Lee Khoon Choy – Indonesia Between Myth and Reality (1976) : a book written by a former Singapore Ambassador in Indonesia who immersed himself deeply in the country.
- Shirley Deane – Maluku. Island of Spices (1979) : the testimony of an Australian women spending a year or so teaching English at Ambon University in the 70s. Pleasant read and interesting travel writings about Maluku.
- [Sold in Airports] Lawrence Bair – Ring Of Fire (1988) : the travelogue of two incredibly lucky brothers who got the chance to travel extensively Indonesia at a time where it was still difficult. The author says itself that he doesn’t know much about the people he met (he traveled before most of the reference ethnographic work was conducted though) and he barely understands them. I found the chapters about region I visited quite boring and those about places I didn’t know rather enchanting. So I guess the author is good at writing, but you won’t learn much tangible about Indonesia.
- Norman Lewis – An Empire of the East (1993) : a travel journal of a journalist in the early 90s through the frontier of Indonesia : Aceh, East Timor and Papua (he got to visit Grasberg mine). Not much information to extract but interesting testimony of what it was to travel to remote parts of Indonesia then.
Arts & Culture
- James R. Bradon – On Thrones of Gold. Three Javanese Shadow Plays (1993) : a great book about Javanese wayang kulit. Very informative first section. The 3 plays are illustrated with many pictures.
- David van Duuren – The Kris. An earthly approach to a cosmic symbol (1998) : a rather short but interesting books about the keris. Covers origin, meaning, usage and regional differences.
- Albert G. van Zonneveld – Traditional weapons of the Indonesian archipelago (2001) : a kind of illustrated dictionary of traditional weapons. Doesn’t cover Papua. Very comprehensive.
- Peter Ten Hoopen – Ikat Textiles of the Indonesian archipelago (2018) : expensive but well worth the price due to very high picture quality, information and diversity of pieces presented.
- Clifford Geertz – The Religion of Java (1960) : seminal work full of details and stories ; it’s one of the most colorful book I read about Indonesia. Much discussed by later authors. Best starting point for studying Java but don’t take all the author’s conclusions as eternal truth.
- Koentjaratningrat – Javanese Culture (1985) : many interesting additions to Geertz.
- Andrew Beatty – Varieties of Javanese Religion (1999) : research centered in Banyuwangi. Very complementary read with Geertz.
- M.C. Ricklefs – Polarizing Javanese Society. Islamic and others visions (c.1830-1930) (2007) +
- M.C. Ricklefs – Islamisation and Its Opponents in Java (c.1930 to the Present) (2012) : this is actually a set of 3 books written by the late American historian (but I never managed to get a hand on the first one). You will need some background about Indonesia and Java to appreciate it but otherwise they are one of the most ambitious and interesting writings about Java you can find.
- Niels Mulder – Mysticism in Java. Ideology in Indonesia (1998) : the first half the book offers very clear information and explanations about Javanese mysticism.
- Robert W. Hefner – Hindu Javanese. Tengger Tradition and Islam (1985) : reference ethnographic study about the Tengger in East Java.
- Nicholas Herriman – Witch-Hunt and Conspiracy. The ‘Ninja Case’ in East Java (2016) : very academic and a bit boring about a dark episode of Java recent history.
- Fred B. Eiseman JR. – Bali Sekala & Niskala (1990)
- John R. Bowen – Muslims Through Discourse. Religion and Ritual in Gayo Society (1993) : a rare example of an ethnography of a Muslim ethnic group. Pleasant and interesting read.
- Achim Sibeth – The Batak. Peoples of the Island of Sumatra (1991) : excellent book combining tales, myths, crafts, tons of pictures … Reference book about the Batak besides older writings in Dutch.
- Christine Dobbins – Islamic Revivalism in a Changing Peasant Economy. Central Sumatra 1784-1847 (1983) : fascinating historical reconstruction of the history of the Minangkabau. Also full of ethnographic details.
- Evelyn Blackwood – Webs Of Power. Women, Kin and Community in a Sumatran Village (2000) : an ethnography of the Minangkabau from the point of view of women. Quite interesting.
- Tsukoyoshi Kato – Matriliny and Migration. Evolving Minangkabau Traditions in Indonesia (1982) : good introduction to the Minangkabau.
- Christian Pelras – The Bugis (1996) : the most comprehensive book I found about the Bugis of South Sulawesi.
- Albert C. Kruyt (20s) [DUTCH] : reference books about the ethnical group of Central Sulawesi have been written by a missionary in Dutch [UNREAD].
- Jane Moning Atkinson – The Art and Politics of Wana Shamanship (1989) : reference ethnography of the Wana of West Central Sulawesi.
- Roxana Waterson – Paths and rivers: Sa’dan Toraja society in transformation (2009) : most comprehensive book I read about the Toraja in an accessible style.
- Hetty Nooy-Palm – The Sa’dan Toraja. A study of their social life and religion. Vol I. – Organization, symbols and beliefs (1979) : good addition to Waterson for passionates.
- Hetty Nooy-Palm – The Sa’dan Toraja. A study of their social life and religion. Vol II. – Rituals of the East and the West (1986) : most comprehensive book about old lost rituals of Toraja before Christianity crept in. Quite academic.
- Toby Alice Volksmann – Feast of Honors. Ritual and change in the Toraja highlands (1985) : always some additional details, for passionates.
- Terance W. Bigalke – Tana Toraja : A Social History of an Indonesian People (2005) [UNREAD]
- Gregory Forth – Rindi. An Ethnographic Study of a Traditional Domain in Eastern Sumba (1981) : very comprehensive ethnography about a Sumbanese domain (local community).
- Janet Hoskins – The Play of Time. Kodi Perspectives on Calendars, History and Exchange (1993) : also very good book about Sumba but less academic than Forth’s (also a bit less comprehensive). Different region surveyed too.
- Gregory Forth – Beneath the Volcano. Religion, Cosmology and Spirit Classification among the Nage of Eastern Indonesia (1998)
- Paul Arndt (30s-50s) [GERMAN] : many early studies about the Ngada and the Lio of Flores were conducted by German Priest Paul Arndt (bio) [UNREAD].
- David Harnish – Bridges to the ancestors : music, myth, and cultural politics at an Indonesian festival (2006) : interesting books about the ties between Balinese and Sasak culture in West Lombok.
- Sven Cederroth – The Spell Of The Ancestors And The Power Of Mekkah. A Sasak Community In Lombok (1981) : very interesting book about one of the remaining Wetu Telu communities in the 1970s and the ongoing change in the Sasak society.
- Peter Just – Dou Donggo Justice. Conflict and Morality in an Indonesian Society (2001) : about the Dou Donggo people of Bima region island, Sumbawa. Quite refreshing and valuable comments and thoughts about the work of the ethnographer.
- Michael Hitchcock – Islam and Identity in Eastern Indonesia (1996) : good book about the region of Bima, Sumbawa.
Solor archipelago + Alor + Savu
- Cora Du Bois – The People of Alor. A Social-Psychological Study of an East Indian People (1944) : the only book I know about Alor. Quite old, some interesting parts.
- R.H. Barnes – Kédang. A Study of the Collective Thought of an Eastern Indonesian People (1974) : about a not so well-known ethnic group on the island of Lembata.
- Geneviève Duggan & Hans Hägerdal – Savu. History and Oral Tradition on an Island of Indonesia (2018) : I was originally looking for an ethnography but this is something different. This book is mainly a attempt to reconstruct Savu history from local tradition and known historical sources. You’ll learn lots of things about Savu island nonetheless.
- Jan Avé & Victor King – Borneo : The people of the Weeping Forest. Tradition and Change in Borneo (1986) : not very long (about 150 pages) but full of lively descriptions and information. Probably the best introduction to Kalimantan and its people.
- Victor T. King – Essays on Borneo Societies (1978) : 10 chapters all dedicated to one ethnic group of Borneo. Focusing on the characteristics of the group and its social organization. Interesting chapters about the Kayan, Kenyah and Maloh of Kalimantan.
- L.Wright, H.Morrison, K.F. Wong – Vanishing World. The Ibans Of Borneo (1972) : a lovely photo book with brief but informative texts. Beautifuly captures the daily longhouse life of the Iban of Sarawak in the post-WWII decades.
- Victor T. King – The Maloh Of West Kalimantan (1985) : a book about the Maloh people of the Upper Kapuas in West Kalimantan. The main theme of the book is the ranking system and its evolution but this book is as far as I know the most comprehensive book about the Maloh dayak.
- H.F. Tillema – A Journey Among The Peoples Of Central Borneo In Word And Picture (1989) : a fantastic English edition by Victor King of the book written by Tillema of his journey to the Apokayan in the 1930s. Great pictures of the Kenyah and the Punan.
- Will Buckingham – Stealing With The Eyes (2018) : a book of a student who goes doing ethnographic fieldwork and realizes he doesn’t like it. Only thing interesting I learned is the reference of an actual ethnography about Tanimbar islands.
- Susan McKinnon – From a Shattered Sun. Hierarchy, Gender and Alliance in the Tanimbar Islands (1991) : good ethnography about Tanimbar.
- Cécile Barraud – Tanimbar Evav. Une Société de Maisons Tournée vers le Large (1979) [FRENCH] : ethnographic study about Tanimbar Kei in Kei island.
- Nils Bubandt – The Empty Seashell. Witchcraft and Doubt On an Indonesian Island (2014) : interesting book about the Buli people in Halmahera.
- Leonard Y. Andaya – The World of Maluku. Eastern Indonesia in the Early Modern Period (1993) : could be in history sections but it’s also full of interesting info on Maluku. Fascinating and colorful.
- Klaus-Friedrich Koch – War and Peace in Jalémo. The Management of Conflict in Highland New Guinea (1974) : I think that it’s the reference book about the Jali of Papua highlands.
- TAPOL – West Papua. The Obliteration of a People (1983) : short book about Indonesia’s abuses in Papua.
- Robert Gardner & Karl G.Heider – Gardens of War. Life and Death in the New Guinea Stone Age (1968) : plenty of pictures.
- New Guinea : The Last Unknown
- Daniel Start – The Open Cage. The Ordeal of the Irian Jaya Hostages (1997) : an insider tale of the Mapenduma hostage crisis (Jan – May 96). Amazing testimony about the daily reality of Papua and the independence movement.
- Andrea Hirata – The Rainbow Troops [Laskar Pelangi] (2005) : Indonesia’s best selling book ever. For a good reason. All Indonesia is contained in that book. The story of poor and young kids in Belitung island. Fantastic and often hilarious.
- Eka Kurniawan – Beauty Is A Wound [Cantik Itu Luka] (2002) : a long story half true half magic across several generations of characters in a Garcia Marquez style. Quite good.
- Eka Kurniawan – Man Tiger [Lelaki Harimau] (2004) : great novel mixing mysticism, family conflicts and Indonesian society.
- Eka Kurniawan – Vengeance Is Mine. All Others Pay Cash [Seperti Dendam, Rindu Harus Dibayar Tuntas] (2014) : not my favourite of Kurniawan but still a pleasant read.
- Mochtar Lubis – Twilight In Jakarta [Senja Di Jakarta] (1963) : good social chronicle of Jakarta in the 60s.
- Michael Vatikiotis – The Spice Garden (2004) : novel about the ethnic clashes in Maluku in late 90s. Interesting historical background, fair writing.
- Pramoedya Ananta Toer – The Buru Quartet (1980-1988) : deserves its title of masterpiece of Indonesian literature. The book is about the character of Minke but in the background you see Indonesia emerging as an independent nation. Yet it’s best appreciated with some knowledge and experience of Indonesia, otherwise you’ll miss things. So don’t pick this one first.
- Pramoedya Antanta Toer – Corruption [Korupsi] (1954) : a short novel about a civil servant who decides to engage in corruption.
- Ahmad Tohari – The Dancer (1982-1986) : a trilogy set across the 60s in Banyumas, Central Java. Sometime a bit too long but some good parts too.
- Andrew Beatty – A Shadow Falls. In the Heart of Java (2009) : kind of the sequel of its 1999 ethnography book. Depict the progress of orthodox Islam at the expense of traditional local cultures. Some good points.
- Ahmad Fuadi – The Land of Five Towers [Negeri 5 Menara] (2011) : the story of a young boy leaving West Sumatra to get an Islamic education in a boarding school in East Java. Quite good and often funny.
- Okky Madasari – The Years of the Voiceless [Entrok] (2010) : great read about the fate of a mother and her daughter striving against unfairness.
- Maria Dermoût – The Ten Thousand Things (1984) : translated from Dutch. Highly poetic novel about Maluku.
- Doug Bock Clark – The Last Whalers (2019) : between a novel and a journalistic work. The chronicle of various characters of the whaling village of Lamalera. Very good.
How to find these books ?
A large parts of the books I recommend are 20 to 40 years old and editors have stopped publishing them for a long time. So you have 2 solutions available : libraries or second-hand market.
Finding books about Indonesia in library
This will work well if you are living in a Western country either near the capital city or a university with an ethnography department. This is most of the time free but you cannot borrow books.
You probably want to check if the library has the books you’re looking for in stock before going. For that you can either use the library website (large institutions almost all have an online catalogue) or you can use Worlcat : type in the reference and you’ll come up with a list of library owning the book.
Buying second-hand books
The first solution is fine and free but it works only if you live in the capital of your country in Europe or in a couple of student town in US/Australia.
Good things is that the modern capitalist world is a very efficient seller of second-hand books.
By far, your best option is Amazon. I have ordered tons of books for less than 10$ (shipping included from the US/UK/Germany to France) and it works like a charm. I recommend using a browser extension like Keepa to compare the prices on various Amazon (US one, UK one, French one, German one …) and to set up price alerts (price of second hands book are mostly set by algorithms and they can move up or down quite quick).
If Amazon is too expensive, it’s worth checking the website Abebooks.com (or the local version if you are not in the US). Owned by Amazon anyway but you can sometimes save 10$ or 20$ using it.