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Reading the world in 196 books

Posted by on Jul. 18, 2013 at 8:35 AM
  • 18 Replies
1 mom liked this

Reading the world in 196 books

(Photo: Darren Russell)

(Photo: Darren Russell)

Writer Ann Morgan set herself a challenge – to read a book from every country in the world in one year. She describes the experience and what she learned.

I used to think of myself as a fairly cosmopolitan sort of person, but my bookshelves told a different story. Apart from a few Indian novels and the odd Australian and South African book, my literature collection consisted of British and American titles. Worse still, I hardly ever tackled anything in translation. My reading was confined to stories by English-speaking authors.

So, at the start of 2012, I set myself the challenge of trying to read a book from every country (well, all 195 UN-recognised states plus former UN member Taiwan) in a year to find out what I was missing.

With no idea how to go about this beyond a sneaking suspicion that I was unlikely to find publications from nearly 200 nations on the shelves of my local bookshop, I decided to ask the planet’s readers for help. I created a blog called A Year of Reading the World and put out an appeal for suggestions of titles that I could read in English.

The response was amazing. Before I knew it, people all over the planet were getting in touch with ideas and offers of help. Some posted me books from their home countries. Others did hours of research on my behalf. In addition, several writers, like Turkmenistan’s Ak Welsapar and Panama’s Juan David Morgan, sent me unpublished translations of their novels, giving me a rare opportunity to read works otherwise unavailable to the 62% of Brits who only speak English. Even with such an extraordinary team of bibliophiles behind me, however, sourcing books was no easy task. For a start, with translations making up only around 4.5 per cent of literary works published in the UK and Ireland, getting English versions of stories was tricky.

Small states

This was particularly true for francophone and lusophone (Portuguese-speaking) African countries. There’s precious little on offer for states such as the Comoros, Madagascar, Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique – I had to rely on unpublished manuscripts for several of these. And when it came to the tiny island nation of Sao Tome & Principe, I would have been stuck without a team of volunteers in Europe and the US who translated a book of short stories by Santomean writer Olinda Beja just so that I could have something to read.

Then there were places where stories are rarely written down. If you’re after a good yarn in the Marshall Islands, for example, you’re more likely to go and ask the local iroij’s (chief’s) permission to hear one of the local storytellers than you are to pick up a book. Similarly, in Niger, legends have traditionally been the preserve of griots (expert narrators-cum-musicians trained in the nation’s lore from around the age of seven). Written versions of their fascinating performances are few and far between – and can only ever capture a small part of the experience of listening for yourself.

If that wasn’t enough, politics threw me the odd curveball too. The foundation of South Sudan on 9 July 2011 – although a joyful event for its citizens, who had lived through decades of civil war to get there – posed something of a challenge. Lacking roads, hospitals, schools or basic infrastructure, the six-month-old country seemed unlikely to have published any books since its creation. If it hadn’t been for a local contact putting me in touch with writer Julia Duany, who penned me a bespoke short story, I might have had to catch a plane to Juba and try to get someone to tell me a tale face to face.

All in all, tracking down stories like these took as much time as the reading and blogging. It was a tall order to fit it all in around work and many were the nights when I sat bleary-eyed into the small hours to make sure I stuck to my target of reading one book every 1.87 days.

Head space

But the effort was worth it. As I made my way through the planet’s literary landscapes, extraordinary things started to happen. Far from simply armchair travelling, I found I was inhabiting the mental space of the storytellers. In the company of Bhutanese writer Kunzang Choden, I wasn’t simply visiting exotic temples, but seeing them as a local Buddhist would. Transported by the imagination of Galsan Tschinag, I wandered through the preoccupations of a shepherd boy in Mongolia’s Altai Mountains.  With Nu Nu Yi as my guide, I experienced a religious festival in Myanmar from a transgender medium’s perspective. 

In the hands of gifted writers, I discovered, bookpacking offered something a physical traveller could hope to experience only rarely: it took me inside the thoughts of individuals living far away and showed me the world through their eyes. More powerful than a thousand news reports, these stories not only opened my mind to the nuts and bolts of life in other places, but opened my heart to the way people there might feel.

And that in turn changed my thinking. Through reading the stories shared with me by bookish strangers around the globe, I realised I was not an isolated person, but part of a network that stretched all over the planet.

One by one, the country names on the list that had begun as an intellectual exercise at the start of the year transformed into vital, vibrant places filled with laughter, love, anger, hope and fear. Lands that had once seemed exotic and remote became close and familiar to me – places I could identify with. At its best, I learned, fiction makes the world real.

http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20130715-reading-the-world-in-365-days

How many books have you read from different countries? Are there any that were particularly memorable or that really changed your perspective on something? What kinds of things have you learned from reading books from countries or cultures besides your own?

Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.

by on Jul. 18, 2013 at 8:35 AM
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Replies (1-10):
momtoscott
by Platinum Member on Jul. 18, 2013 at 8:48 AM
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I've read a fair amount of Canadian, South American and European/UK literature, some Russian stuff, of course, and more Japanese and Chinese poetry than other works.  A little Indian.  Beyond some South African writers I don't think I have read much contemporary African stuff.  Now I'm realizing how much I've missed... 

This reminds me of a "project" I did over the last couple of years where I read at least one unfamiliar author from each letter of the alphabet in my local library's fiction section, although my project was more fluffy.  

krysstizzle
by on Jul. 18, 2013 at 9:03 AM
1 mom liked this

Amazing! Great idea. 

Unfortunately, I haven't read a lot of literature from other countries. I do love Russian lit, particularly Dostoyevsky; I've read a couple of Indian authors; and I've read quite a bit of Latin American literature, some of my favorites are from South America: Isabelle Allende, Garcia Marquez, Neruda, Carlos Fuentes...

That sounds like quite a bit to me, but when you consider 196 different countries, well. I'd really like to do something similar. There are some Haitian and other Caribbean countries authors I've been wanting to read for a while. 

JakeandEmmasMom
by Platinum Member on Jul. 18, 2013 at 9:19 AM
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 What a fantastic idea!

I really haven't read much international literature.

Aestas
by Gold Member on Jul. 18, 2013 at 9:23 AM
1 mom liked this

I had never really thought about this before, so after I posted, I went and did a quick count on my bookshelves (not all my books are on them, and I've read plenty of books that I don't own, so it's not exhaustive, but it'll have to do). I found books and/or authors from 30 countries (only counted it if the author was writing about the country he/she is from), plus books written about or taking place in 10 other countries (but the authors weren't from those countries).

Most represented were the US and England, followed by India, then (in no particular order) Canada, France, Iran, Afghanistan, Russia, Congo (but I don't think I've read any actual Congolese writers), Zimbabwe, South Africa, Russia, Mexico, Chile. I also had China, Nigeria, Israel (Palestine), Antigua, Tonga, Madagascar, Colombia, Iraq, Bosnia, Czech Republic, Thailand, Philippines, Ireland, Rwanda, Australia, Peru, Somalia, Yemen, North Korea, Spain, Italy, Egypt, Ethiopia, Germany, Brazil, the Netherlands, and Greece.

Looks like I have a lot of work to do!

krysstizzle
by on Jul. 18, 2013 at 9:27 AM

That's a pretty decent start! Much more diverse than mine, for sure. 

I'm definitely doing this. Not in a year, but I'm going to make a country list and go from there. I'm a little bit giddy and excited thinking about it!

Quoting Aestas:

I had never really thought about this before, so after I posted, I went and did a quick count on my bookshelves (not all my books are on them, and I've read plenty of books that I don't own, so it's not exhaustive, but it'll have to do). I found books and/or authors from 30 countries (only counted it if the author was writing about the country he/she is from), plus books written about or taking place in 10 other countries (but the authors weren't from those countries).

Most represented were the US and England, followed by India, then (in no particular order) Canada, France, Iran, Afghanistan, Russia, Congo (but I don't think I've read any actual Congolese writers), Zimbabwe, South Africa, Russia, Mexico, Chile. I also had China, Nigeria, Israel (Palestine), Antigua, Tonga, Madagascar, Colombia, Iraq, Bosnia, Czech Republic, Thailand, Philippines, Ireland, Rwanda, Australia, Peru, Somalia, Yemen, North Korea, Spain, Italy, Egypt, Ethiopia, Germany, Brazil, the Netherlands, and Greece.

Looks like I have a lot of work to do!


Aestas
by Gold Member on Jul. 18, 2013 at 9:34 AM

There's no way I could do it in a year, either (I'm thinking the woman in the article doesn't have any kids!), but I like your idea of going down the list. I'm going to do it too!

Got any recommendations from places I haven't read yet? One of my all-time favorites is Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangaremgba, so if you haven't read anything from Zimbabwe yet, I highly recommend it!

Quoting krysstizzle:

That's a pretty decent start! Much more diverse than mine, for sure. 

I'm definitely doing this. Not in a year, but I'm going to make a country list and go from there. I'm a little bit giddy and excited thinking about it!

Quoting Aestas:

I had never really thought about this before, so after I posted, I went and did a quick count on my bookshelves (not all my books are on them, and I've read plenty of books that I don't own, so it's not exhaustive, but it'll have to do). I found books and/or authors from 30 countries (only counted it if the author was writing about the country he/she is from), plus books written about or taking place in 10 other countries (but the authors weren't from those countries).

Most represented were the US and England, followed by India, then (in no particular order) Canada, France, Iran, Afghanistan, Russia, Congo (but I don't think I've read any actual Congolese writers), Zimbabwe, South Africa, Russia, Mexico, Chile. I also had China, Nigeria, Israel (Palestine), Antigua, Tonga, Madagascar, Colombia, Iraq, Bosnia, Czech Republic, Thailand, Philippines, Ireland, Rwanda, Australia, Peru, Somalia, Yemen, North Korea, Spain, Italy, Egypt, Ethiopia, Germany, Brazil, the Netherlands, and Greece.

Looks like I have a lot of work to do!



krysstizzle
by on Jul. 18, 2013 at 9:50 AM

I was thinking the same about lack of kids. 

And awesome, thanks for that recommendation! (Feel free to keep them coming, I'll add authors and books to my country list)

I'd recommend  Edwidge Danticat (Haiti, love her), Jorge Luis Borges (Argentina, lovely short stories). I have Junot Diaz on my list of to-read stuff, he's Dominican (D. Republic, not Dominica the other island) and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is supposed to be really good. 

Quoting Aestas:

There's no way I could do it in a year, either (I'm thinking the woman in the article doesn't have any kids!), but I like your idea of going down the list. I'm going to do it too!

Got any recommendations from places I haven't readll-time favorites is Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangaremgba, so if you haven't read anything from Zimbabwe yet, I highly recommend it!

Quoting krysstizzle:

That's a pretty decent start! Much more diverse than mine, for sure. 

I'm definitely doing this. Not in a year, but I'm going to make a country list and go from there. I'm a little bit giddy and excited thinking about it!

Quoting Aestas:

I had never really thought about this before, so after I posted, I went and did a quick count on my bookshelves (not all my books are on them, and I've read plenty of books that I don't own, so it's not exhaustive, but it'll have to do). I found books and/or authors from 30 countries (only counted it if the author was writing about the country he/she is from), plus books written about or taking place in 10 other countries (but the authors weren't from those countries).

Most represented were the US and England, followed by India, then (in no particular order) Canada, France, Iran, Afghanistan, Russia, Congo (but I don't think I've read any actual Congolese writers), Zimbabwe, South Africa, Russia, Mexico, Chile. I also had China, Nigeria, Israel (Palestine), Antigua, Tonga, Madagascar, Colombia, Iraq, Bosnia, Czech Republic, Thailand, Philippines, Ireland, Rwanda, Australia, Peru, Somalia, Yemen, North Korea, Spain, Italy, Egypt, Ethiopia, Germany, Brazil, the Netherlands, and Greece.

Looks like I have a lot of work to do!




Aestas
by Gold Member on Jul. 18, 2013 at 10:04 AM

Ooh, I've read Borges, but Danticat and Diaz have been on my list forever and I just haven't gotten around to it. Making a note!

Let's see, other books I like...

Iracema by José de Alencar (Brazil)

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini (Afghanistan)

S. by Slavenka Drakulić (former Yugoslavia)

Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid (Antigua)

Anton Chekhov's short stories (Russia)

Runaway by Alice Munro (Canada, short stories)

Men in the Sun by Ghassan Kanafani (Palestine, short stories)

I'm sure there are lots more, but that's off the top of my head.

Quoting krysstizzle:

I was thinking the same about lack of kids. 

And awesome, thanks for that recommendation! (Feel free to keep them coming, I'll add authors and books to my country list)

I'd recommend  Edwidge Danticat (Haiti, love her), Jorge Luis Borges (Argentina, lovely short stories). I have Junot Diaz on my list of to-read stuff, he's Dominican (D. Republic, not Dominica the other island) and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is supposed to be really good. 

krysstizzle
by on Jul. 18, 2013 at 10:20 AM
1 mom liked this

Woo! I'm so excited :) 

Quoting Aestas:

Ooh, I've read Borges, but Danticat and Diaz have been on my list forever and I just haven't gotten around to it. Making a note!

Let's see, other books I like...

Iracema by José de Alencar (Brazil)

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini (Afghanistan)

S. by Slavenka Drakulić (former Yugoslavia)

Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid (Antigua)

Anton Chekhov's short stories (Russia)

Runaway by Alice Munro (Canada, short stories)

Men in the Sun by Ghassan Kanafani (Palestine, short stories)

I'm sure there are lots more, but that's off the top of my head.

Quoting krysstizzle:

I was thinking the same about lack of kids. 

And awesome, thanks for that recommendation! (Feel free to keep them coming, I'll add authors and books to my country list)

I'd recommend  Edwidge Danticat (Haiti, love her), Jorge Luis Borges (Argentina, lovely short stories). I have Junot Diaz on my list of to-read stuff, he's Dominican (D. Republic, not Dominica the other island) and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is supposed to be really good. 


Clairwil
by Ruby Member on Jul. 18, 2013 at 12:02 PM
1 mom liked this
Quoting Aestas:
Quoting Aestas:

Most represented were the US and England, followed by India, then (in no particular order) Canada, France, Iran, Afghanistan, Russia, Congo (but I don't think I've read any actual Congolese writers), Zimbabwe, South Africa, Russia, Mexico, Chile. I also had China, Nigeria, Israel (Palestine), Antigua, Tonga, Madagascar, Colombia, Iraq, Bosnia, Czech Republic, Thailand, Philippines, Ireland, Rwanda, Australia, Peru, Somalia, Yemen, North Korea, Spain, Italy, Egypt, Ethiopia, Germany, Brazil, the Netherlands, and Greece.

Looks like I have a lot of work to do!

Got any recommendations from places I haven't read yet?

Sweden - The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Finland - http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/kveng/

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