‘Reading the World: Confessions of a Literary Explorer’ (also published under the title ‘The World Between Two Covers’ in the United States) is Ann Morgan’s account of how she read a book from every country in the world after realising that her literary diet mostly consisted of British and American authors. Rather than cobbling together Morgan’s reviews of the 197 books she read in 2012 which are already available for free on her excellent blog A Year of Reading the World, her bibliomemoir examines questions such as what makes a good translation, how to define a sovereign nation and what the future holds for world literature and the publishing industry.
Morgan’s experiences of tracking down books from across the world are as varied as the texts themselves. She struggled to get hold of a single book from certain sovereign states, such as the collection of short stories from São Tomé and Príncipe which was specially commissioned and translated for her by volunteers. Partly due to the dominance of the English language, some of the books Morgan read had been written specifically with a Western audience in mind with varying degrees of success. Elsewhere, other texts are virtually impenetrable to those who don’t share the specific cultural and historical references required to understand the context. As I’ve discovered while reading books like Death by Water by Kenzaburo Oe, my personal expectations of how stories are told doesn’t necessarily correspond with how an author may write for a non-Western audience. I was particularly fascinated by the traditions in Chinese crime fiction which rarely centres on any sort of mystery needing to be solved (and also explains why A Perfect Crime by A Yi lacks any suspense whatsoever).
Although it is commendable that Morgan hasn’t copied a single paragraph of her original blog content into her book, some of her extensive research on topics such as postcolonial literature tends to be rather dry and academic in tone. However, it is the personal stories of the authors and translators involved in her project which are the most interesting parts of the book. These include authors who have been affected by censorship in their native countries such as Hamid Ismailov in Uzbekistan or Dr Julia Aker Duany who provided Morgan with an autobiographical text representing South Sudan, the world’s newest state which gained independence in 2011 just a few months before Morgan began her project.
As I have developed more of an interest in translated fiction over the last couple of years, ‘Reading the World’ has been excellent food for thought while I’ve been working my way through the Man Booker International Prize longlist in recent weeks. As varied as the thirteen books are, they are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what literature from around the world can offer. ‘Reading the World’ is therefore a timely reminder of why stories matter in whatever form they are told and wherever in the world they come from and I recommend it to anyone seeking to widen their literary horizons.