Could you read a book from every country in one year?

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.

Clickable Map of selected books at TED ideas’ Your Guide to Reading the World

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.

Happy reading!

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24 Responses to Could you read a book from every country in one year?

  1. TheYesMad says:

    Its still impressive she was able to read 196 books in a year, and make a Ted-Talk out of it.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      It is, indeed. It just seems like she missed an opportunity to make the reading more meaningful, but it’s an impressive feat, for sure. Thank you for commenting.

  2. It’s not feasible and I believe she made some shortcuts. After all, this suggestion leans more to over-consumption practices then to mindfulness exploration.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks for commenting, cryptomathecian. I completely agree, her quest wasn’t designed to really get much out of any of the books she read. Disappointing, really.

  3. Roy McCarthy says:

    I like that she took on ‘Ulysses’ knowing how challenging a read it is, but compromised by opting for an audio version to listen to in the car, therefore creating more ‘reading’ time.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Lol. Maybe you should consider making your books available as audiobooks, Roy. I, however, prefer having the full reading experience with each of your books. 😊

  4. iidorun says:

    Hi Jane! I agree that her title is misleading. And reading that quickly does sound like a “job” – not something I would want to! I love to read and do think about the book afterwards. Maybe she chose the books based on the author’s country but also stories that she likes (mysteries, etc.)?

  5. Jean says:

    I’m such lazy, anal reader…considering the reality that one of my degrees is English Lit. I haven’t read a novel in over 15 yrs. I find I just veg with non-fiction writing. So reading of authors from every country sounds slightly daunting but not impossible for voracious readers.

    And I have a niece who writes romance novels.. I encourage her but haven’t read her stuff yet.

  6. Inkplume says:

    Hmmm, seen from the perspective that the goal was quantity over anything else, it would have felt like a chore to me. Since I read for the pleasure of it, this isn’t a goal I would set for myself. I don’t have reading goals or a strategy for choosing books. I just visit my library every few weeks, browse the shelves, pick what strikes my fancy at the time, then come home with an armload of books.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks for sharing your perspective, Linda. I’m buoyed to have this affirmation that people read for pleasure – and that we all read! We can read to learn and to gain new perspectives at the same time as we’re taking pleasure in the experience, but you confirm the mounting evidence that Ann Morgan doesn’t have to worry about people lining up to compete with her reading challenges!

  7. DM says:

    Humm, you asked how do I choose which ones to read? had to think about that for a little bit. There is definitely an ebb and flow to the types of books I read. Usually have a couple going @ the same time. 60% of the time I’m looking for it as an escape, (just finished up a series of Sherlock Holmes stores, before that, Little House on the Prairie, before that Wind in the Willows, 30% autobiographical of some nature (personal journals, correspondence are two of my favorites) and 10% “how to”..ie financial investing, bee keeping, etc. Then you asked about reading goals…don’t have any. Reading for me is my treat to myself @ the end of a full day. Something to do while I soak in the tub for 20 minutes…then again sitting up in bed before calling it a day. I did take speed reading in school. Loved it, and use it on most all of my reading except for the 10% of how to reading. Amazon Prime is my favorite place to buy books… Used hard covers. Get them for pennies on the dollar. Both wife and I are readers, and we both love books. CS Lewis’s quote…”We read to know we are not alone.” is probably my favorite quote on reading.. The end 🙂 DM

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks, DM. I love hearing about other people’s reading habits. (We have a shelf full of financial investing books and still have our beekeeping bible as well as one on cattle production, for old times’ sake!) I am not surprised that you fully embrace the truism that reading is one of life’s greatest pleasures.

  8. I’m always interested in challenges such as this. Well, to be honest, I like reading about others doing them. I compare them to those blogging challenges, where people post something new every day for a month. In the end, I know I personally would chafe under restrictions like that.

    Choosing my next book is always this very personal exercise because I tend to be a slow reader, and I know that it’s a long-term commitment of mine for the next several weeks. This is also one of the reasons why I’ve never joined a book club — I’d never keep up with the group! 🙂 – Marty

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks for these observations, Marty. I agree with you about enjoying reading about admirable – and/or crazy – challenges people come up with. I especially enjoyed some of AJ Jacobs’ personal challenges (all in order to write about them), such as A Year of Living Biblically (using a literal interpretation). Funny, when I first read the intro of Reading the World in a Year, I didn’t see it that way. I saw it naively as an amazing way of “exploring” the world. But, no, it’s not, and of course how could it be?! You’d like our book club; we have no assigned reading and people can come and report on several books or on none. No stress!

  9. I find goodreads.com a great resource for keeping track of what I’ve read and what I’d like to read, as well as checking reviews before I select a book. However, it has an option to challenge yourself by setting your goal for the number of books you’ll read in the current year. I would never do that to myself. Like you, I like time to reflect on what I’ve read. I’m a slow reader – I believe that the proofreader in me never switches off (except when I don’t catch my own mistakes). I belong to two book clubs that have monthly meetings. I can rarely cover two books in a month, so sometimes I skip a book so that I can keep pace. I’m fine with this, as the only person I have to please in my reading is me. Aside from the book club selections, I have one or two friends I trust to suggest books. Other than that, I have a daily email of specials for my Kindle, and that sometimes steers me to a book.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Lol. Once a proofreader (or teacher who marked essays and theses), always a proofreader. It’s a blessing and a curse! I like your approach, Francine. I belong to a great book club, more appropriately called a reading group, where we don’t assign a common reading at all. We meet once a month, describe what each of us has (or hasn’t) read and give it our personal rating. That way each of us gets some new ideas of what to read – or what to avoid – each month. It’s worked really well for a long time now. Some of our group belong to one or more traditional book clubs and report on their required reading, so the rest of us can enjoy the reading experience vicariously without having to read the questionable selections!

  10. Emilia says:

    No, I could not read that many books in a year….I cannot even imagine how one could have time to sleep, eat, having a shower or a multitude of other activities that make a person’s life! Not to mention what that would do to one’s eyes…
    Of course this was a one time project not a continuous way of life.
    I got curious by your comments about the book from Canada and decided to look into her pick for Portugal. Well, it’s not much different. Eça de Queiroz is no doubt one of the best Portuguese writers of the 19th century but the story is not even based in Portugal. I have reread this book recently and , in fact, it could have been written this year but has nothing to do with the country’s culture. So, I don’t think that was the criteria for her choice.
    Just an aside, when I was going to school a certain number of well know writers and poets were part of the school program but not Eça (this is how he is known in Portugal). He was an atheist and in a catholic country which at that time had religion and state intertwined, he was not talked about much. It just happened that my mother was an avid reader and she had all his books, which we kids were not supposed to read, and everyone knows what happens when teenagers are in front of the “forbidden fruit”!
    Here is a description of the book as per Ann’s blog:

    Portugal: a moral dilemma
    If you could make yourself rich beyond your wildest imaginings by ringing a bell would you do it?
    What if ringing that bell caused the death of someone you’d never met on the other side of the world?
    Such is the dilemma facing the unlikely hero Teodoro, an impoverished scribe at Portugal’s Internal Affairs and Education department, in the title of story of this collection by Portuguese writer José Maria Eça de Queiroz.
    Confronted with this choice (a reworking of the ‘mandarin paradox’ first posed by French writer Chateaubriand in 1802) late one night after a Mephistophelian character appears in his bedroom, Teodoro gives in, half-believing that he is dreaming. Then a messenger arrives with bank drafts making over the fortune of recently deceased Mandarin Ti Chin-Fu to him, setting in motion a carnival of excess and guilt that ultimately leads to our hero travelling to China in an attempt to make amends for what he has done.
    Eça de Queiroz is widely hailed as Portugal’s greatest 19th century novelist, yet there is a freshness to his writing which makes it seem much more recent. Where English authors such as Hardy and Dickens point to the loosening grip of Church teachings on the popular imagination, Eça de Queiroz comes right out with the assertion that ‘Heaven and Hell are social concepts created for the sole use of the lower classes’, albeit hedged round with the private superstitions and blindspots of each of his characters: self-professed atheist Teodoro, for example, makes regular offerings to his patron saint, our Lady of Sorrows.
    In addition, the difficulties Teodoro encounters trying to repay his moral debts to the community he has wronged find echoes in many of the debates about global development and aid today. Initially hoping to salve his conscience by making a donation to the state, he is warned off this course of action by the Russian ambassador in words that might have been spoken yesterday (if not in relation to China):
    ‘Those millions would never reach the imperial Treasury. They would line the bottomless pockets of the ruling classes. They would be frittered away… They would not help to relieve the hunger of a single ordinary Chinese person… They would merely contribute to the continuance of the whole Asian orgy.’
    This freshness, blended with lyricism and spiced with sardonic insights into the hypocrisy and blindness of humanity, flavours the whole collection. Playful and experimental, Eça de Queiroz delights in turning on his readers at points, challenging them with the same quandaries he poses his characters, a technique he takes to its limits in the final story ‘José Matias’ by putting the narrative in the second person, thereby plonking the reader into the carriage right next to the narrator. Even the least successful piece in the collection ‘ The Idiosyncrasies of a Young Blonde Woman’, which is more of an extended character sketch than a fully realised story, is lively and compelling.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Wow, fascinating. Thanks for this. Emilia. So it definitely seems that getting to know the countries of the world through their literature was not her motivation. And you agree with my belief that there’s no way you could do justice to good literature by reading them that quickly and then having no reflection time. We’ll have to set different goals for ourselves! 😏

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