Reading Globally

When writer Ann Morgan examined the contents of her bookshelf a few years ago, she made what she calls an “alarming discovery.” The books on her shelves were mostly English works written by British and North American authors. Considering that Morgan is British and English is her mother tongue, her reading material isn’t that surprising. But Morgan realized that, by limiting her reading choices to English works by British and North American authors, she was missing out on a large part of the world.

To overcome this “massive cultural blindspot” in her reading, Morgan decided to “prescribe herself an intensive course of global reading.” Morgan challenged herself to read one book—a novel, short story collection, or memoir—from every country in the world. Each book had to be written originally in that country’s language; Morgan would read the book’s English translation. She gave herself one year to complete the project.

After watching Morgan’s TED video, My Year Reading a Book From Every Country in the World, in which she describes her year-long project, I carefully examined the contents of my bookshelves. Since I regularly borrow books from the library, I checked my reading history there too. My reading material survey revealed results similar to Morgan’s: I primarily read British and North American authors who are writing in English.

There were a few exceptions. I have read a handful of translated classics, including Don Quixote (Spanish), Anna Karenina (Russian), Madame Bovary (French), The Prince (Italian), The Iliad (Greek), and a few Icelandic Sagas. As a nod to my husband’s Finnish heritage, I’ve read the English translations of The Unknown Soldier, Seven Brothers, and the Lapp King’s Daughter. And I’ve read a few contemporary novels: The Snowman by Jo Nesbø (Norwegian), The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (Spanish), and A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali by Gil Courtemanche (French, but set in Rwanda.)

I’m tempted to include I am Malala, by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb, even though it was written in English. What I found particularly interesting, beyond that book’s primary subject matter, were the details of Malala’s day-to-day life growing up in Pakistan: the domestic arrangements of her family’s home, the cultural values of the wider community, and how leisure time, education, transportation, and extended family arrangements were dealt with. Reading I am Malala was a global learning experience for me.

Disappointingly, my list excluded most of the world. Like Morgan, I resolved to do better at reading globally. Unlike Morgan, who sometimes recruited volunteers to help source and translate books, my job finding books will be easier. Morgan’s blog contains a list of every book she read during her year of reading the world. Since completing her project in 2012, she has updated the list to include more books from each country.

You can watch the TED Talks video of Morgan’s experience and read her blog, A Year of Reading the World for inspiration. While Morgan completed her goal of reading a book from each of 196 countries in the space of one year—about four books a week—you need not emulate her ambitious pace.

However quickly you read, each book will allow you, as Morgan says, to “look at the world through different eyes.” Each global book is one step to discovering the “richness, diversity, and complexity of our remarkable planet”, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.

Barbara Lehtiniemi is a writer, photographer, and AU student. She lives on a windswept rural road in Eastern Ontario. Follow Barbara on twitter @ThereGoesBarb.