She washed and scrubbed expatriates' homes in exchange for rare novels

Kiswanti went to great lengths to get people to read in Indonesia, a nation addicted to social media but with a lacklustre interest in books.

For six years, as she cycled on bumpy village mud tracks in western Java as a door-to-door herbal medicine vendor, Kiswanti would carry a stack of books on the back of her bike to lend to children.

Her humble efforts have snowballed and her modest village is now home to a library, a rare sight even in Indonesia's biggest cities.

"Reading gives you knowledge and knowledge is power. Nobody, no matter how poor, should be deprived of reading," Kiswanti, 46, told AFP.

Mobile library to storehouse

Kiswanti gave up her days as a "mobile librarian" in 2005 when a liver illness struck. As a neighbour kept the mobile library on its wheels, international and local donors caught wind of the initiative and fronted the cash to start the Lebakwangi Reading House, which now boasts a collection of 5,000 titles.

The library gets around 100 visitors a day, mostly students, and Kiswanti is plotting ways to expand her reach, already touting her library to teachers and students at schools in three villages.

Distrust in books

Indonesia has an impressive literacy rate for a developing nation -- nine out of 10 adults can read, the World Bank reports -- but books are considered luxury items for many of its 240 million people, half of whom live on less than $2 a day.

The country has a much richer tradition of oral story-telling, but libraries are few and far between. There is also a history of distrust in books in Indonesia, where dictator Suharto used them as a vehicle for propaganda under his iron-fisted New Order regime.

But Kiswanti is still hopeful she can get her community to pick up books, and her spirit has rubbed off: 16 volunteers, mostly graduate housewives, help her run a pre-school in the same building that holds the library, teaching English and mathematics.

Marriage with a precondition

Born to a trishaw rider father and herbal medicine vendor mother, Kiswanti was the eldest of five children was forced to drop out of school at the age of 12.

She spent her childhood removing peanut shells and picking fruit for a pittance, which she would spend immediately on books. As an adult, .

Her passion for reading even prompted her to place an unusual precondition for her marriage to construction worker Ngatmin.

Ngatmin, 57, who now works as swimming pool maintenance worker, said he had to agree to let her buy as many books as she could afford.

"It's obvious my wife loves books more than me. She goes to bed with one and reads until she falls asleep," he said.

"But because I love her, I don't mind being her second choice."AFP