One for the book

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 February, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 February, 2006, 12:00am

Ruan Ming used to be a special assistant to the late Hu Yaobang , the liberal Communist Party general secretary, in whose name the students gathered in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989. He now lives in Taiwan where he is a 'visiting professor' at Tamkang University. His new book was published recently by Taiwan Interminds, a notably pro-Taiwanese company. Its title can be loosely translated as A History of No Return, and copies were prominently on sale last week at the 2006 Taipei International Book Exhibition.

On Sunday, the exhibition's final day, former Taiwanese president Lee Teng-hui had just concluded a speech and a protracted book-signing session. Security was tight, with young people, who can hardly have remembered his presidency, holding their digital cameras at arm's length and hoping to get a lucky shot over the heads of the dozen or so burly bodyguards. As he left, Mr Lee stopped at the Taiwan Interminds booth. Producing NT$1,000 ($240), and with studied deliberation, bought a copy of Ruan Ming's book.

Few saw this. The TV crews had mostly gone, and the attendants at the stand told me afterwards that they were not forewarned of Mr Lee's stop. Perhaps it was just a case of impulse buying. Either way, it was another unexpected glimpse of the variety of life that, year after year, the exhibition provides. Not only that, the event has become part of the Lunar New Year ritual; something this holiday period would not be the same without.

Visitors who come expecting learned discussions on literary matters, however, are dumbfounded to discover it's more like a fairground. Children run around squealing with delight as they win their own height in comic books in contests lasting a few seconds. Teenagers, armed with lipstick and dressed as anything from Harry Potter to Japanese manga heroes, strive to increase the impressiveness of each other's appearance, while earnest lesbian authors discuss the true meaning of their trade to hushed and attentive audiences.

These last ones are serious writers, needless to say. And it's true that there were other substantial ingredients in the pie - 16th century copies of Homer's Iliad and the works of Plato loaned by the National Library of Greece, for instance, and a digital publishing seminar.

Even so, it was the variety and the huge throng of people that made the biggest impression - that, and a coffee table floating 60cm off the ground. It was a trademark trick of Chien Liu, Taiwan's best-known magician. The exhibition, after all, is about delight, as well as profits, and this year's event once again pleased everyone by producing both in very considerable profusion.