Long-time Myanmar watcher Andrew Selth takes a look at early lists, popular titles and recommended reading on the Southeast Asian nation.

Many Myanmar-watchers tap into the websites of major booksellers from time-to-time, to see what is being written about the country and to find out what titles are finding favour among both the scholarly community and general public. Some also like to keep an eye on those lists, compiled mostly by travel writers and journalists, of books recommended to people who wish to learn more about Myanmar, or who plan to make a visit there.

By monitoring such websites over the years, it has been possible to identify some staple choices and discern a number of interesting trends.

Early lists

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, both kinds of lists were rather short. This reflected the low level of public interest in the country (then known as Burma) and the limited number of works available. Most compilations included overviews like Hugh Tinker’s The Union of Burma (first published in 1961) and FSV Donnison’s Burma (1970), or histories such as Dorothy Woodman’s The Making of Burma (1962) and Frank Trager’s Burma: From Kingdom to Republic (1966). More specialised information could be found in the US Defence Department’s Area Handbook for Burma (1968).

For lighter fare, there were travel books like Somerset Maugham, The Gentleman in the Parlour (1930) and Norman Lewis’s Golden Earth (1952). Myanmar-related fiction was usually represented by Tennyson Jesse’s The Lacquer Lady (1930) and George Orwell’s Burmese Days (1934). Curiously, despite their popularity, few lists included Maurice Collis’s histories, or his four volumes of autobiography, namely Trials in Burma (1938), The Journey Outward (1952), Into Hidden Burma (1953) and The Journey Up (1970).

Another notable omission was guide books. This was largely because few people visited Myanmar during the Ne Win era, and those who did were restricted in how long they could stay and where they could go. As a consequence, the market for such works was small. One exception was Ulrich Zagorski’s Burma: Unknown Paradise (1972). As the country became better known, however, more (and more comprehensive) guides began to appear, including Burma: A Travel Survival Kit (1979) by the Lonely Planet team.

Please click here to read the full “Myanmar bibliographies and booklists” article in the New Mandala by Griffith Asia Institute Adjunct Associate Professor, Dr Andrew Selth.