Reading the World
Ann Morgan shares what she learned in her year of reading a book from every country in the world.
It’s often said that you can tell a lot about a person by looking at what’s on their bookshelves. What do my book shelves say about me? Well, when I asked myself this question a few years ago, I made an alarming discovery. I’d always thought of myself as a fairly cultured, cosmopolitan sort of person. But my bookshelves told a rather different story. Pretty much all the titles on them were by British or North American authors, and there was almost translated. Discovering this massive, cultural blind spot in my reading came as quite a shock.
And when I thought about it, it seemed like a real shame. I knew there had to be lots of amazing stories out there by writers working in languages other than English. And it seemed really sad to think that my reading habits meant I would probably never encounter them. So, I decided to prescribe myself an intensive course of global reading. The year 2012 was set to be a very international year for the U.K.; it was the year of the London Olympics. And so I decided to use it as my time frame to try to read a novel, short story collection or memoir from every country in the world. And so I did. And it was very exciting, and I learned some remarkable things and made some wonderful connections that I want to share with you today.
It turns out, if you want to read the world, if you want to encounter it with an open mind, the world will help you.
But it started with some practical problems. After I’d worked out which of the many different lists of countries in the world to use for my project, I ended up going with the list of U.N.-recognized nations, to which I added Taiwan, which gave me a total of 196 countries.
And after I’d worked out how to fit reading and blogging about, roughly, four books a week around working five days a week, I then had to face up to the fact that I might not be able to get books in English from every country.
Only around 4.5 percent of the literary works published each year in the U.K. are translations, and the figures are similar for much of the English-speaking world . . .
So in October 2011, I registered my blog, ayearofreadingtheworld.com, and I posted a short appeal online. I explained who I was, how narrow my reading had been, and I asked anyone who cared to leave a message suggesting what I might read from other parts of the planet. Now, I had no idea whether anyone would be interested, but within a few hours of me posting that appeal online, people started to get in touch. At first, they were friends and colleagues. Then they were friends of friends. And pretty soon, they were strangers.
Four days after I put that appeal online, I got a message from a woman called Rafidah in Kuala Lumpur. She said she loved the sound of my project, could she go to her local English-language bookshop and choose my Malaysian book and post it to me? I accepted enthusiastically, and a few weeks later, a package arrived containing not one, but two books—Rafidah’s choice from Malaysia and a book from Singapore that she had also picked out for me. Now, at the time, I was amazed that a stranger more than 6,000 miles away would go to such lengths to help someone she would probably never meet.
But Rafidah’s kindness proved to be the pattern for that year. Time and again, people went out of their way to help me. Some took on research on my behalf, and others made detours on holidays and business trips to go to bookshops for me. It turns out, if you want to read the world, if you want to encounter it with an open mind, the world will help you. When it came to countries with little or no commercially available literature in English, people went further still . . .
From Sweden to Palau, writers and translators sent me self-published books and unpublished manuscripts of books that hadn’t been picked up by Anglophone publishers or that were no longer available, giving me privileged glimpses of some remarkable imaginary worlds. I read, for example, about the Southern African king Ngungunhane, who led the resistance against the Portuguese in the 19th century; and about marriage rituals in a remote village on the shores of the Caspian Sea in Turkmenistan. I met Kuwait’s answer to Bridget Jones . . .
When I looked back at much of the English-language literature I’d grown up with, for example, I began to see how narrow a lot of it was, compared to the richness that the world has to offer. And as the pages turned, something else started to happen. Little by little, that long list of countries that I’d started the year with, changed from a rather dry, academic register of place names into living, breathing entities.
Now, I don’t want to suggest that it’s at all possible to get a rounded picture of a country simply by reading one book. But cumulatively, the stories I read that year made me more alive than ever before to the richness, diversity and complexity of our remarkable planet . . .
And, it’s testament to the extraordinary times we live in, where, thanks to the Internet, it’s easier than ever before for a stranger to share a story, a worldview, a book with someone she may never meet, on the other side of the planet. I hope it’s a story I’m reading for many years to come. And I hope many more people will join me. If we all read more widely, there’d be more incentive for publishers to translate more books, and we would all be richer for that.
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