At Play in the Fields of the Taipei Book Fair

March 15th, 2007 § 0 comments

It is one thing to be lulled into a sense of progress, learning Chinese from a book, by readings ingeniously limited to the words each lesson introduces; quite another to be confronted by those words in the wilds of the language at large. That native habitat finds them consorting promiscuously with strange characters in more configurations than were sketched by Bosch: phrases, formalities, compounds and commercial puns, the elaborate titles of common dishes. Walking down the street, my head swiveling at ads, is to see some word I thought to know leering at me from a coupling at whose meaning I can only guess. This induces in me something like the vertigo of chancing on a girl, believed demure, in some obscure debauchery: lightheaded from the loss of some certainty.

Of the 3000 characters Chinese is said to employ on a common basis, I now know, I would venture, 500: which is to say my chances of recognizing a character are roughly those of losing at Russian roulette. I conceived of the 15th Taipei International Book Exhibition (TIBE) as a citadel of language: a chance to glimpse words at work and play in all the possibilities print offered. I would pick up one, maybe two new expressions. Mostly I would wander in studious bewilderment. My first stop was, just past Google, the pavilion of the Bureau International de l’Édition Française (BIEF), to pay homage as a translator of French to this distant outpost of the Republic of Letters. I returned there several times over the course of three visits to the fair, which I never did entirely cover.

Anyone deriving from my orbits some erroneously Franco-centric notion of the floor plan might be briskly disabused thereof with a glance at the map by whose lights, were booth size any indicator of real-world real estate, France, while still outsizing Google’s domain (but only just), would cover less than half the feudal holdings of Japan’s manga emperor Tohan, its shelves heavy with revues thick as phone books. With some geographic justice, none of these in square footage could rival Russia. As this year’s guest of honor, it boasted both the smallest books—a collection of exquisite miniatures, including Chekhov’s Guinness-recordholding “Chameleon”—and the largest pavilion: yards of carpeted steppe, dotted with scarlet cushions, right under where the roof drew like a giant breath up past stacked balconies toward a skylight vault. Of course booth size and location signified no more secret hierarchy than the pecuniary, and certainly not the geopolitical; no surprise to this jaded shopper, who regularly mistakes, while strolling chain bookstores, the piles of sales displays for bar graphs of publisher funding. Still, I would’ve liked, from idle curiosity, to see last year’s floor plan overlay this year’s in some informative animation of who’d shrunk or grown, gone or stayed.

“Unlikeliest to Return” in the 2007 yearbook was, it seemed, the Tehran International Book Fair, whose rep staffed his deserted booth with a exasperated quixotry from behind a hardcover of Persian art the size of, er, a rug. Behind him, on the wall, were arrayed mostly children’s books, whose Farsi titles had been clumsily blotted out with English labels. This was the empty end of the international quarter, where the Swedish Trade Council tried to slink by with a few desultorily spaced tomes on snow, sparing not even a blonde for the counter, which the Frankfurter Buchmesse around the corner had at least managed. Instructively, its stall was smaller than the BIEF’s: French, after Japanese and English, is the third most-translated language into Taiwan’s traditional Chinese. Domestic exhibitors outnumbered the visitors three to one, the latter represented overwhelmingly by children’s books, then educational and reference texts, with business and academic works tying for third (Norton escorted a number of UPs). The floor map flapping in my hand, I wondered what other information its graphic might be made to yield: say, the diffusion of educational manuals, booth to booth, by a corresponding density of Benday dots?

If we are to assume:

1) Books from these categories were present in overwhelming numbers because they sell well.

2) They sell well because they cater to Chinese interests.

Then we are back at a few dismal if abiding stereotypes about the Chinese:

1) They venerate scholarship, and knowledge in the abstract.

2) They venerate prosperity, and money in the concrete.

3) Their children have, essentially, two options: Ph.D. or MBA.

Some notes on size: the TIBE, billed as Asia’s largest book fair, isn’t the fruited plains of BEA, though it did manage to fill the main floor of the Taipei World Trade Center, a truncated ziggurat of two-toned pink tile unique in looking like it might be precisely and entirely reproduced with Legos. Like most expos it’s large enough, and enough of a visual bazaar, to tire the eye and stride of visitors. Inside, weary teens troll the aisles, hoisting advertisements for the booths that employ them: a mix of bookstores and domestic publishers, all set up to retail. As I browsed on Friday, I kept hearing the sales barkers warn of the weekend’s impending crowds, urging immediate purchase. Crowds are a constant in Taipei, their effect exaggerated by the fact that most spaces are configured for maximum efficiency of stock, and a minimum of passage. Watching the brisk business from outside a wall of windows, my friend Grace Chang, Rights Manager for the Commonwealth Publishing Group (天下文化), shook her head and sighed. “It’s just a sales fair,” she said sadly. “It’s really for the public.”

Oh, and… beware the Ides of March, everyone.

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