That’s the task that British writer and blogger Ann Morgan set for herself back in 2012, inspired by the approaching 2012 London Olympics, to read a book from every country in a year. Just to be clear, that’s 196 books, one from each of the 196 independent countries currently recognized in the world. To “read the world” in a year means reading an average of nearly 4 books per week. OK, maybe doable for a few very speedy readers, but not for most of us. Ann Morgan is clearly one of those speedy readers.
Her quest to “read the world in a year” was spurred by the excitement of the world coming to London for the 2012 London Olympics, but she was already a pro at this type of mission; 2011 was Ann Morgan’s Year of Reading Women. I guess that reading a book from every country seemed a natural follow-up challenge. And although she considered herself very well read, she realized that her reading had a strongly based in literature from the UK and the US; as she says in one of her blogs, she was “shamelessly anglocentric”. I initially took this epiphany to mean that she wanted to read books that would give her perspectives from the countries around the world, learning more about the world and expanding her worldview. However, based on the books she chose from each country, I’m not sure that was really the case. It seems more like a quest to be able to say that she’d read this many books from this many countries, period. That’s a fine accomplishment, but it’s not exactly what I had expected.
Ms. Morgan has been able to parlay this intensive reading experience into something of a career. She established a blog to invite book recommendations from around the world (that are available in translation, a bit of an additional hurdle). This blog – A Year of Reading the World – remains very active. She has given a well-received TED talk on her reading and outreach experiences (TED talk: Ann Morgan, My year reading a book from every country in the world), and she has published a book on this ambitious reading project (Reading the World, or The World Between Two Covers in the US).
Her complied list of book suggestions from blog readers is very interesting (The List). In my humble opinion, The List is well worth looking at if you’re seeking out ideas for new reading ideas.
An online TED ideas article about Ann Morgan’s year of reading the world, Your Guide to Reading the World, provides a compelling visual of her reading choices through the use of an interactive world map. The map includes a marker on each country. A click on each marker reveals which book she selected to read for that country. It was when I clicked on the marker for Canada that I first started to question the underlying objective of this project. A novel from 1987, Mauve Desert by Nicole Brossard, read in translation from the French original, takes place in the desert of Arizona as it explores fraught relationships of a teenage girl from a feminist perspective. While highly recommended, it would be hard to argue that reading this particular novel would provide its reader with any sense of unique cultural or historic voices or issues from Canada. It doesn’t even take place in a Canadian landscape. Intriguingly, every other suggestion on The List under Canada would have provided its reader with a uniquely Canadian perspective.
Obviously, I can’t speak to whether people from other countries would voice similar surprise about the book chosen to represent their country. Perhaps the Canadian choice was a one-off. But it appears that Ms. Morgan’s quest was specifically to read a book in translation from every non-anglophone country in the world, which is different from what I had inferred at the outset. While laudable, somehow it seems like a broader opportunity missed.
Also, I happen to know that for the other books and authors listed for Canada on The List, reading most of them is a profound enough experience that you would want to spend a few days savouring and pondering what you had read rather than immediately picking up your next read. I cannot imagine, for example, reading Joseph Boyden’s The Three Day Road or Timothy Findlay’s Not Wanted on the Voyage and then having to immediately start the next solid piece of literature for its 1.5 days of intense reading. Giving yourself the opportunity and the privilege to read so many excellent books and then not giving yourself the time to fully absorb and reflect on the book seems like an opportunity wasted.
So, having been blown away initially by this ambitious goal of reading the world in a year, I have come to think that this just wouldn’t work for me. I need both reading time and reflecting time to absorb good literature. I enthusiastically endorse searching for excellent writers from all over the world, but not based on how quickly I can read them. Also, for me learning something about the character of a country is an important aspect of reading. I owe Ann Morgan a vote of thanks for getting me to think about what authors I should look for during my next library and Chapters visits. However, I cannot imagine setting a goal for myself of more than one (maybe two if I have absolutely nothing else to do) serious books in a week!
What about you? How do you choose what books you want to read? If you were to set a reading goal for yourself for 2020, what would it be? As a suggestion, you couldn’t go wrong by choosing to read many of Canada’s remarkable authors, both present and past.