Literature Is Alive and Well in Taiwan!

Though it’s become fashionable to declare the death of print media, visitors to this year’s Taipei International Book Exhibition would probably disagree with the sentiment. According to Taiwan’s Ministry of Culture, 580,000 people attended the 2019 event, which ran from February twelfth through the seventeenth. It’s an impressive number, but not totally shocking. Taiwan is known as a nation that takes reading seriously.

Taipei International Book Exhibition, Day 3
Taipei International Book Exhibition, Day 3

The Taipei World Trade Center was packed with the creme de la creme of Taiwan’s literary scene, from writers and publishers to readers and purveyors of the printed word in all their glorious forms. Hundreds of booths filled the massive hall. The one thing nearly (but not quite) all had in common were books, stacks and stacks of which filled each booth, whether large or small.

Taipei International Book Exhibition, Day 3
A Plush Mascot greets the crowd

Crowds were thick as visiting bibliophiles checked out everything from the latest pulp novel to more obscure fare, and oversized plush mascots created by Taiwanese artists greeted and entertained exhibition visitors as they made their way through the crowds. With 735 publishers from 52 countries attending the exhibition, finding something interesting was just a matter of knowing where to look or of looking long enough. In most cases, it was a combination of the two, with a bit of luck thrown in for good measure.

Taipei International Book Exhibition, Day 3
One of many, many vendors

International Authors meet Taiwanese Readers

International is in the title, and as has been the case for several years, festival organizers declared one nation (and its literary tradition) the guest of honor.

This year’s guest of honor was Germany, and an entire section of the hall was reserved for German publishers. A popular spot in the German section was a photo booth where guests could try on colorful costumes fashioned in the style of German ballet figurines dating back to Germany’s avant-garde Bauhaus movement. Many visitors took advantage of this, posting selfies with the hashtag #TIBE2019 to Twitter, Instagram, and various other social media platforms.

Taipei International Book Exhibition, Day 3
Playing dress up

Authors, of course, were in attendance, reading aloud from their work (which would then be translated from German to Mandarin) and answering questions from the crowd through interpreters. Prominent among the German writers in attendance was Ferdinand von Schirach, author of (among other works) the short story collection “Carl Tohrberg’s Christmas” and the novel “The Girl Who Wasn’t There”. The author read selections of his work before taking questions from the audience.

Though the guest of honor, Germany was far from the only nation represented outside of Taiwan. The international area had rows of booths representing over 50 countries, including Japan, Korea, UK, France, US, Switzerland, Belize, Belgium, New Zealand, Canada, Peru, Mexico, Chile, Argentina, Austria, Guatemala, and the Czech Republic. Many of these booths were staffed by writers and publishers who’d come from their respective countries to attend the week-long festival. Reading Israel’s booth featured a large collection of work by author Amos Oz, whose passing last year left a void in the heart of Israel’s literary scene.

Taipei International Book Exhibition, Day 3
Birdseye view of reading

Art, Religion, and History

The Taiwan Association for Independent Bookshop Culture had their own booth, lending plenty of independent cred to the festival. The non-profit organization hopes to encourage Taiwan to read more and to promote independent bookstores in the process. More well known to casual visitors to Taiwan was The National Palace Museum, whose booth was more like a miniature gift shop offering books on the museum’s extensive collection alongside items from their actual gift shop.

Religious groups were also present, ranging from a small booth run by the Jehovah’s Witnesses Foundation and another, much better-attended booth run by the folks from Dianetics, who offered E-meter readings alongside various books by founder L. Ron Hubbard. More local were several publishers of Buddhist books, most of which were run by monks and nuns in full traditional garb, offering spiritual chat alongside sales of calendars, paintings, and books. Perhaps the most sobering booth at this year’s festival belonged to Taiwan’s National Human Rights Museum, which featured videos and books by survivors of Taiwan’s White Terror speaking about their experiences living through torture and incarceration, as well as about Taiwan’s transition from martial law to democracy.

Comics, Games and Other Fun Stuff

Though books were the focus, other pastimes were heavily represented at this year’s TIBE. A considerable portion of space was allotted to game manufacturers with numerous gaming tables set up for competition. These areas tended to be among the liveliest and most crowded. Some of the games being played, promoted and sold were Chinese-language versions of popular games like Settlers of Catan, Splendor, and Magic: The Gathering, but a surprising number were homegrown, Made in Taiwan games like Formosa Flowers, a colorful, bilingual card game featuring the well-known beauty of Taiwan’s flora, and Home Play, a game created by the Taiwan Gender Equity Education Association to teach children about gender roles and diversity in modern families.

Comics were also popular with several booths selling Japanese-style Manga books, local Taiwanese comics, and of course, various translations of popular Marvel and DC titles. Other booths included fortune tellers using Tarot decks for readings, a colorful booth where masseuses in golden shirts gave head, neck and shoulder massages to visitors needing a break from reading.  

Taipei International Book Exhibition, Day 3
Masked authors preparing to read

So while the world may be increasingly digital, in Taiwan, print media is still alive and well. To borrow from the late Raymond Carver, it’s a Small, Good Thing.

Taipei International Book Exhibition, Day 3
Taiwan Scene EIC Joshua Samuel Brown at the festival

The Taipei International Book Exhibition will return next year with South Korea as the guest country.