I'm going to make this easy on myself. There's a lot of travel writing on China by celebrated mammoths of the genre, such as Colin Thubron and Paul Theroux, as well as by some little less renowned local writers like Sun Shuyun or Ma Jian , who can give an insider's view of travel in China. The point of this post, however, is to point the reader to books most useful in introducing the country. So without further ado, I present you with;
Travel: Lonely Planet China (Country Travel Guide), several authors
There's some excellent photography, an earlier edition had a print picture of the current Dalai Lama (arriving for the first time to China by train from Russia, I was worried the female border guard officer, in her uniform and high heels would see the picture and confiscate the book), that is a good ice-breaker in Tibet.
The segments for different destinations are at least partly written by people who only pass through quickly, without getting the vibe of some cities. Thus Fuzhou, the capital of Fujian province and my hometown for a year, for example is trashed pretty severely and, in my view, unfairly.
The book fulfills it's main function of getting you around China in one piece and is also suitable for armchair travel. The only drawback I can see is, that every other backpacker has a copy, and so everyone ends up in the same places. If you're traveling alone and looking for some company, then that's just fine. The most hard-core travelers won't rely on LP anyway.
Check out part 1: Fiction, of the "Short reading list" here
Check out part 2: History, of the "Short reading list" here