October 10, 2013

One woman spends a year reading a book for each nation


Image via Shutterstock.

Last month on Publishing Perspectives, Olivia Snaije interviewed and profiled Ann Morgan, a woman who—from January 1 to December 31 of 2012—“set herself the challenge to spend one year reading a book from each of the globe’s 196 independent countries”—that is, each UN-recognized nation, Taiwan, and one territory chosen by her blog’s readers. Snaije explained that Morgan’s “idea came about when she realized that even though she had always considered herself a fairly cosmopolitan person, most of her bookshelves were filled with works by UK and US authors.”

Miller went into greater detail on the project’s beginnings in her blog post on Australia, her seventh book/country pairing:

Last year, fellow blogger Jason Cooper stopped by my A year of reading women blog and said that he really wanted me to read Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet. I pointed out that Tim Winton didn’t fit with my theme, but Cooper was adamant; I would have to do another blog in 2012 and find a theme to fit round the book.

“What about reading books from different countries?” he suggested.

“What about reading books from every country?” I countered.

Her first obscacle came in the definition of a “national literature,” Morgan wrote: “Is it by a person born in that place? Is it written in that country? Can it be about another nation state?” In addition, she found that, “according to the Society of Authors, only 3 per cent of the books published in the UK each year are translations”; as a result, she told Snaije, she often had to read unpublished manuscripts of translations. Even with a knowledge of its difficulties, the challenge still took Miller by surprise:

I always knew that translation was going to be a challenge, but a big surprise was finding how many Francophone and Lusophone African countries have no literature available in English translation. I assumed that because French and Portuguese are widely spoken around the world it would be easy to find translations of books written in those languages, but there was very little. Can you believe, for example, that not a single novel from Madagascar is available in English? The country has well over 22 million people and yet people who speak only English can’t read any of its stories.

The ever-helpful bookish corner of the internet, though, was on her side; volunteers even translated short stories from Sao Tome and Principe just for Miller’s project.

Where her books were neither easily available from large presses nor sent to her in manuscript form, Miller turned to the indie. The big UK presses, she wrote in her post on Belgium, tend to default to the big names—“the Achebes, Rushdies, and Roys”—whereas small presses publish lesser-known voices. (Not surprisingly, then, Miller’s longlist of books by country, composed jointly by herself and her blog’s readers, includes quite a few of Melville House’s authors. Among several others, Alejandro Zambra helps represent Chile; Imre Kertész, Hungary; and Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, Iran.)

One of the most impressive things about Morgan’s project lies in her tendency to choose smaller, less-translated names. In her post on Afhanistan, Morgan admitted, “It was harder than I expected to find an Afghan book that wasn’t by Khaled Hosseini.” (She couldn’t go far: Atiq Rahimi’s The Patience Stone, which she ended up reading for the nation, featured Hosseini’s introduction.) Morgan chose Martin Kohan over Borges, Hiromi Kawakami over Murakami, Eca de Querioz over Saramago, Faïza Guène over Colette. It is this choice, I think, that led to her project’s gravity. She told Snaije,

I think the most powerful thing about the experience is how it made the world real to me. Over the year, the list of countries that had felt rather distant and mysterious at the start of the year became vivid and characterful. I also made so many connections with readers and writers all over the world, and was amazed at the generosity of the many I’ve never met, who got behind the project, and the enthusiasm that people showed for the idea. It was a lesson that even in our conflict-riven world, people can come together across cultural boundaries and stories can play a big part in that.

Morgan’s year of reading will be published as a book—Reading the World: Postcards from My Bookshelf—by Harvill Secker next year. She currently blogs for her newest project, If Women Ruled.

Emma Aylor is a former Melville House intern.