Reviewed by Rebecca Foster
Ann Morgan is a freelance writer for the Guardian, among other publications, and also part of a dedicated tribe of book bloggers. She spent 2011 on a project she called ‘A Year of Reading Women’; toward the end of that year it was brought to her attention that almost all of her chosen reading was by Britons or Americans, or certainly English-language authors. Embarrassed to find that she was a (largely unconscious) ‘literary xenophobe,’ she decided 2012’s project should be a bit different. In the same year the Olympics came to London, she would read one book from each of the world’s countries.
Morgan is honest about the difficulty of stepping outside one’s comfort zone: ‘Ensconced as we are in our individual hall of mirrors, our literary preferences reflected endlessly back at us in slightly altered form, it can be tricky to see a way out.’ One of the main points Morgan makes here is that a skewed idea of the pre-eminence of English-language books is not solely readers’ fault; rather, the publishing industry is largely to blame. Only four percent of books published in the United Kingdom (three percent in the United States) originate from another language, so it’s no wonder we remain mostly oblivious to foreign literature; ‘the odds are stacked against most books from elsewhere ever reaching us.’
Which foreign-language books manage to cross the cultural divide and earn an English audience? Morgan suggests that the rare books that succeed in translation exhibit a ‘balance of the foreign and the familiar … They meld discovery and recognition – enlightening, flattering, challenging and comforting in varying degrees.’ As she started amassing her list of titles to tackle in A Year of Reading the World, she found that African literature, especially, was severely underrepresented in translation. Sometimes a country only had one author with commercially available work, such as Mia Couto for Mozambique. On other occasions the author, or a reader from the country, would send work directly to Morgan. She specially commissioned a translation from the Portuguese of a work from São Tomé and Principe.
In countries without an internationally recognised literary canon, self-publishing is less stigmatised. For instance, Cecil Browne of St Vincent discovered that it was the only way he would ever see his words in print. Lani Wendt, a Samoan housewife, self-published a hugely successful young adult trilogy featuring a transgender character. Known throughout the Pacific region, the series has 1,400 ratings on the Goodreads social media site. Some countries are too new to have a written literary scene at all: South Sudan was the youngest nation featured, through a story former refugee Julia Duany wrote and recorded (a nice nod to oral storytelling traditions there) to inaugurate the blog on January 1, 2012.
What makes a country anyway? When Morgan embarked on the project, she thought it would be a straightforward matter of finding a definitive country list and choosing a book from each. As it turns out, what constitutes a sovereign state is a rather vexed question. In the end she settled on the UN-recognised figure of 196, including Palestine and Taiwan but not Tibet; Kurdistan was a later add-on. In practical terms, this meant that Morgan had to finish one book every 1.87 days, often putting in eight hours of reading and blogging per day on top of full-time freelancing.
If you’ve come to this book expecting a thorough rundown of those nearly 200 books – how Morgan chose them, what they’re about and what she thought of them – you may well be disappointed. Many blog-to-book adaptations repeat content from the blog entries, or perhaps streamline the year’s activities into an accelerated narrative. Morgan does neither; not a single paragraph from her blog made it into the book. In a recent blog entry she discusses how her publisher, Harvill Secker, guided the book in a different direction. Anyone who wants to read Morgan’s commentary on the books can simply trawl through the archives of ayearofreadingtheworld.com, they pointed out; the book needed to be a new initiative.
This is not, then, just another bibliomemoir (to borrow Joyce Carol Oates’s term) along the lines of The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller, How to Be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis or My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead – three examples from last year. In fact, in the same blog entry Morgan opines that ‘the 196 books I read that year … were sort of beside the point.’ What a shame to see that attitude, because the book is best when she does convey enthusiasm for particular volumes from her reading year, whether a collection of Marshall Islands legends, Why the Child Is Cooking in the Polenta by late Romanian author Aglaja Veteranyii or An African in Greenland by Togo’s Tété-Michel Kpomassie.
A better balance could have been struck between recycled blog content and academic musings on postcolonial literature and censorship. Morgan is neither a professor nor your average engaged reader. She’s aiming for a tone somewhere in between, meaning that the book sits rather uncomfortably between Book Studies text and popular memoir. Moreover, anyone wishing to pick a bone with her 196 selections can flip to the appended list and find plenty of justification: they can seem clichéd (Ulysses for Ireland; A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah for Sierra Leone) or grasping for straws (a biography of Grace Kelly for Monaco; tourist brochures for San Marino and Tuvalu). Perhaps her strangest choice of all is American Gods – by Neil Gaiman, an Englishman – to represent the entire USA.
An interest in the politics of literature in translation would be a boon to anyone attempting Reading the World. The American title – The World Between Two Covers: Reading the Globe – is perhaps more indicative of the content. Even if one might welcome more detailed examples from the year’s reading, the book is a necessary reminder to broaden one’s literary horizons. As Morgan found, ‘these regions ceased to be mysterious blanks … their stories had made them real.’
An American transplant to England, Rebecca is a full-time freelance editor and writer. She reviews books for a number of print and online publications in the US and UK, and blogs at Bookish Beck.
Ann Morgan, Reading the World: Confessions of a Literary Explorer (Harvill Secker: London, 2015). 978-1846557873, 326 pp., hardback.