Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Recently found on the new books shelf at the main location of the St. Petersburg Public Library: Ann Morgan's The World Between Two Covers: Reading the Globe, a chronicle of Morgan's time trying to read a written work from every country in the world and blog about it at A Year of Reading The World. (The original British publication title is Reading the World.) This is mostly not, as some people writing reviews at Goodreads expected, a discussion of the individual books she read. (Those seem to be what's on the weblog, for people in search of reviews of world books; myself, I generally prefer when a book by a blogger isn't just a reprint of what I could read online.)

What this book covers is the doing of the project and thoughts on the issues that came up. The idea to "read the world" was inspired by an Australian reader recommending a book in the comments of her previous blog, and Morgan's realization that her bookshelves were "a host of British and North American greats...apart from a dog-eared copy of Madame Bovary and a jumbled assortment of Freuds picked up during a student book-buying binge and barely touched since, there seemed to be nothing at all in translation." (Mine are hardly better, despite an interest in the history of all sorts of places -- almost all I've read seems to have been written by English speakers, mostly US and UK natives.) There's a lot of thought on why it's worthwhile to make the effort to branch out to works from different places, different cultures, different languages, even when it's intimidating to face settings so unfamiliar.

Then came all the pre-reading tasks, such as:

  • deciding what even counts as a country, which isn't always simple;
  • finding works from each of those countries, no matter how small (San Marino, just over 61 square kilometers/23.5 square miles in area, but only the fifth-smallest country according to Infoplease) or brand-new (South Sudan had been independent less than a year when her project started);
  • and finding them in English (or for Sao Tome and Principe, getting them translated specifically for this project).

These tasks lead into detailed considerations of the publishing industry around the world, the difficulty in getting things written down that originate in oral storytelling culture, and the official censorship of some governments. Once the reading part of the project starts, more things to think about arise: the culture shock of reading things that seem truly "foreign" to the reader's mind, the possible changes made when the translator is added to the author-reader connection, and the influence of technology on making written works available. I enjoyed the discussion of all these subjects, but I can understand why it might not be the right cup of tea for people who prefer just getting on with reading the stories.

The bibliography of the 196 works that Morgan read is included at the end of the book. I was pleased to see a couple I was already familiar with: Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel (representing Mexico) and, for Latvia, With Dance Shoes in Siberian Snows by Sandra Kalniete, which I talked about in March 2010. I have already put in requests at the library for two more that sounded particularly interesting: An African in Greenland by Tété-Michel Kpomassie from Togo, and In the United States of Africa by Abdourahman Waberi from Djibouti. Obviously these are not extremely obscure, in that they have both been translated into English and are physically available somewhere in the Pinellas County Public Library Cooperative, but I'd never heard of either book or author. But I'm glad to have had them pointed out for me; it's weird how a longtime science fiction reader like me can let slide the works of people from cultures that really exist and may be as different from how I live as anything set thousands of years in the future.

I would be interested to hear more about Morgan's project before this one, A Year of Reading Women, but I can see where there would be a lot less background of the selection process to talk about in a book about that project, so I'll just have to content myself with reading through that site.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

I would highly recommend When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II by Molly Guptill Manning to anyone who cares about books, or about people in military service (and what kind of person are you if neither of those applies to you?). It covers a facet of daily lives of American service people in World War II that I had never heard of, despite having a degree in library science, and I easily imagine my grandfathers, both of whom served in WWII, reading Armed Services Edition books on Pacific islands. You don't often think about how people pass the everyday time away from home in a situation where everything has to be shipped to them (particularly at a time when the most advanced entertainment technology was the radio, and the broadcast with the best reception might be "Tokyo Rose" spewing propaganda). First libraries' "Victory Book Campaign" donated books, and then Armed Services Editions printed especially to be sent out to GIs, gave a lot of Americans (and even other countries' service people, when they were working with Americans) a leisure distraction and chance at relaxation or education, whether in a trench or on a ship or even in a prisoner of war camp. As one sailor said about their value, no matter how beat up, "To heave one in the garbage can is tantamount to striking your grandmother."

That in itself is an important enough subject to know about, and think about for service people now. There are multiple charities and campaigns devoted to getting reading material to US military stationed outside the country, such as:

However, the Armed Services Editions' millions of copies of 1322 different books also influenced peacetime publishing and reading. They spread the idea of paperbacks, which had been previously been rare in bookstores and more likely to be cheap afterthoughts in a drugstore. They made some books and authors famous; the ones mentioned in particular are F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, a commercial failure when it was first published, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. There's an interesting story about the political wrangling before the 1944 Presidential elections where opponents of incumbent President Franklin Roosevelt attempted to limit the political discussions that could be part of the ASE books and other material available to the military, and the uproar over censorship that followed. And at the end of the war, there were continued readers who hadn't been before the war, some of whom used the GI Bill subsidies to go to college when they never would have thought of that before the war (and were good enough students to be called "Damned Average Raisers" by their younger classmates). These "books that went to war" ended up influencing the social and economic climate of the United States for decades.