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.