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Taiwan in 100 Books

Hoping to visit Taiwan when the pandemic eventually ends, and thinking of reading up on the island in the meantime? There’s no shortage of English-language books about this East Asia country. In fact, there are so many you may not know where to start.

Since moving to Taiwan from his native New Zealand in the mid-1990s, John Grant Ross has read just about everything relating to his adopted home that he’s been able to lay his hands on. To write this 328-page ‘book about books’, he whittled a very long list down to just over a hundred.

To be considered for inclusion, a book had to meet just one condition: It had to be in whole or in part about Taiwan or be set in Taiwan. Fiction or nonfiction, frivolous or academic… it didn’t matter. Ross wasn’t swayed by the prestige of heavyweight publishers. He rejected some tomes issued by university presses, while embracing several self-published titles.

Some of the 100 featured titles had sunk into utter obscurity before Camphor Press – which Ross co-founded, and which published Taiwan in 100 Books – reissued them. The Jing Affair by D.J. Spencer, a novel that first saw the light of day in 1965, is one of these; Ross praises it as ‘good fun… farfetched but very clever’. Another tome he singles out is A Culinary History of Taipei: Beyond Pork and Ponlai (which this writer co-authored) – ‘It’s very good as a general book on the subject, yet also in-depth’.

Ross covers a great many fields, but he thinks his selections are ‘especially strong on Cold War novels and non-fiction’ and also on the mid- to late 1980s (the era of the so-called ‘economic miracle’).

Even so, he sees gaps in English-language coverage of Taiwan. ‘There are way too many books on Taiwanese cinema, but no general, accessible introduction to the country’s wildlife’, he says, suggesting this might reflect something wrong with how academia steers people into certain fields. Fortunately, amateurs are sometimes able to cover ground that professionals neglect. Among those celebrated by Ross are the German engineer who compiled the most comprehensive book ever written about Taiwan’s ferns, and the son of American missionaries whose railway photography is a rare record of infrastructure in the 1960s.

Don’t buy this book thinking you won’t read others about the island. Consider it a first step on the road to Taiwan.