Why Doesn't Anyone in Taiwan Read Anymore?

A startling drop in book sales and readership triggers island-wide concern.


Kenny Wu/Reuters

A newly released survey conducted by the Ministry of Culture in Taiwan reports that the Taiwanese read only two books a year on average. While the well-known Chinese adage "with just one book, a man is never poor" offered some comfort to centuries of impecunious literati as they honed their calligraphy to the neglect of their purse, two books hardly adds up to an intellectual fortune. For decades, Taiwan has boasted a reputation as a literary society. Why then, is there such a discrepancy between Taiwan's cultivated image and its book-shunning public?

One plausible explanation for their seeming disregard for the printed word is that reading habits have changed. As the Ministry of Culture's report points out, the publishing industry is facing fierce competition from digital media as more and more people turn to the Internet as their main source of information. But Taiwan's abscence from the top table of internet users in a survey by comscore would seem to suggest that the Taiwanese are online less than their neighbors in China, Japan, and South Korea, who read 4.3 books, 8.4 books, and 10.8 books per year respectively. Nor, as the Minister for Culture Long Yingtai has highlighted, is the digital book market in Taiwan growing at an alarming rate; publishers seem reluctant to release their products in digitized form, perhaps for fear that they will fall victim to piracy.

The Taiwanese are reading less than their Asian neighbors, and book stores are floundering. In 2012, the turnover of the domestic book market was 76.4 billion NTD (about $2.5 billion), a 5.4 percent drop from the previous year. In recent years, 70 percent of booksellers on Taipei's Chongqing South road, renowned for its cavernous bookshops and quirky literary parlors, have closed their doors to the public. In an effort to revitalize their dwindling industry, booksellers are calling for the government to issue book consumption vouchers, or institute a policy whereby book expenses can be claimed against tax.

However, Chu Anmin, the head editor of INK Publishing, believes that a drop in book sales does not mean decline in reading, as bookworms may be going to libraries to get their fill of print instead. My own experience of public libraries in Taiwan does not confirm this conjecture. The library, while rarely empty, does not primarily serve the function of providing material for enthusiastic readers. It is, rather, a place for elders to scan the newspaper and socialize. It is also a haven for excited young couples to romance behind the bookshelves, as Taiwanese young adults often live at home and must find a quiet corner in a public place to engage in intimate frivolity. Libraries even serve as battlegrounds for frenzied high school students cramming for university entrance exams. The bookshelves are an aesthetic backdrop to the struggles of youth and the languor of old age.

But if the statistics are true, then what two books have captured the attention of the Taiwanese public? A recent look at the bestsellers list of the nation's most popular online bookstore, www.books.com.tw, reveals the number-one book to be Bone-fide Medicine(《真原医》), by the dashing doctor Yang Dingyi. Books on health and beauty often sell the best. Next is Of Course You Can Get Your Sight Back (《视力当然可以回复》), by Nakakawa Kazuhiro, which details a series of eye exercises for people hopeful to improve their vision. The remaining eight books are Western novels (translated literature accounts for over 40% of all book sales and 80% of bestsellers), including two volumes from the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy.

The notable absence of Taiwanese authors from these lists is a recent change. In the 1980s, when Taiwan's literary scene was in full swing, the pens of authors such as Huang Chunming, Wu Nianzhen, Zhang Dachun, and Li Ao were busy producing bestselling books that crowded the nation's shelves. Now, only Li Ao still struggles on, publishing provocative tracts on the depravity of American presidents and reeling off eclectic political and literary commentary on his weekly television show. With readers doing less reading, writers are doing less writing.

Despite this, Taipei is still a book lover's paradise. The streets and alleys around each university are awash with second hand bookstores selling rare editions of fine books at low prices. In the vicinity of National Taiwan University, each lane offers a specialized emporium where you may find a Burmese dictionary or a manual on sailors' knots from Fujian province. And then there is Eslite, known to locals as Chengpin (诚品). This super-bookstore, present in almost every large city in Taiwan, is a cultural phenomenon. It has given the book, that dusty old antique, a fresh, new image. Young couples go on dates to Eslite, and browse through the rooms of oak-lined bookshelves before catching a milkshake in the trendy café and then moving swiftly on to the public library to further their relations. But although Eslite, which turns a profit from real estate, not book sales, is not threatened by the menace of a two-book public, other bazaars of literary intrigue face a more uncertain future.

All of this has led some to ask, how can we get the Taiwanese public to read more?

Ye Meiyao, the head editor of New Classics Publishing House (新经典出版社), says that while a reform of book tax and pricing would help, the issue must also be addressed through education. From primary school onwards, children should not only be encouraged to read, but also told what to read, so that they develop the ability to choose a good book.

Some feel, however, that this is precisely this kind of muddle-headed idea that has put so many people in Taiwan off reading in the first place. Children are already overloaded with information from an early age, and must memorize and recite reams of Classical poetry to get through the school year. The last thing that students need is for a teacher to tell them what to read in their spare time.

One solution to the problem would be to allow for one hour of dedicated reading per day, during which time students would be able to delve into any book they wished. The distractions of modern entertainment mean that many children have not acquired the habit of sitting down quietly to read and develop their own interest in books. Literary taste, whether it is the best in science fiction, manga or French poetry, can go a long way to shaping one's personality. The Taiwanese preference for manuals on health doubtless affords us some understanding of the nation's psyche, but the empty bookshelf will keep us guessing.

This post also appears at Tea Leaf Nation, an Atlantic partner site.