One Year Reading a Book from Every Nation in the World

In English Language by Olivia Snaije

Year of Reading

By Olivia Snaije

Ann Morgan came to my attention in 2011 when she sent out a request to readers worldwide for suggestions for books to read in translation. A Cambridge University graduate in English literature, and now a writer and editor, Morgan had set herself the challenge to spend one year reading a book from each of the globe’s 196 independent countries. The idea came about when she realized that even though she had always considered herself a fairly cosmopolitan person, most of her bookshelves were filled with works by UK and US authors,

In January 2012 Morgan set up a blog, A Year of Reading the World, and, at a pace of four to five books a week, began reading, in translation, fiction, and occasionally memoirs, from countries around the world. With help from readers spread across the globe, far-reaching research and countless emails, Morgan met her challenge and got a book deal to boot. Harvill Secker will publish her book, Reading the World: Postcards from my Bookshelf, in 2015.

Michal Shavit, the Editorial Director at Harvill Secker who acquired Morgan’s book said: “Ann’s book is the first of its kind to take us on a journey around world literature and to think about how different cultures think about books and storytelling.”

It is also an opportunity for Harvill Secker, which publishes roughly 50% of their books in translation to look closely at the books Morgan read on her journey that have not yet been published in English—Morgan sometimes had to read unpublished manuscripts when a work was not available to read in English—Shavit added, “I hope that not only Harvill but also other publishers will want to consider some of these for publication and that readers will want to reach out for some of those that are already published. There are some real gems in there.”

Shavit believes that “things are looking much more positive than they ever have done before for books in translation. There are more books in translation than ever before and more imprints and publishing houses are looking to acquire and publish international books. We don’t think about whether a book is ‘in translation’ or not, we are simply looking for the best writing and the best stories from around the world.”

Following is an interview with Ann Morgan about how she went about her project. Before that, you can read her list of titles read here.

PP: Looking at your list, there are usually several books or more for each country. Did you actually read all the books on the list or is it a wish list? 

AM: The list on the website features all the valid recommendations I received for each country. At the start of the project, I asked readers around the world to help me by recommending books that I should read. I put all the valid suggestions on the list and then chose one for each country (each country name on the list links to my review for that country). Much as I would have liked to, I didn’t have time to read more than one book for each country in a year.

PP: In an article for the Guardian you mention reading an unpublished manuscript. Will this be included in the book? In other words, will there be published and unpublished works? 

AM: I read quite a lot of unpublished manuscripts of translations for the project because there simply isn’t literature available to buy in English from every country in the world. The unpublished works won’t be published in my book – I don’t have the copyright – but I will certainly talk about the most interesting examples.

PP: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced and some of the biggest surprises? Were there any preconceived notions that were shattered?

AM: Getting works in English from every country was a big challenge, as was finding the time to read and blog about four books a week. Luckily, the world’s book lovers were very generous with helping me research and find the titles I needed. A group of volunteer translators even translated a collection of short stories by a writer from Sao Tome and Principe (the book was called A casa do pastor by Olinda Beja) just so that I could have something to read from this tiny African island nation because there was nothing available in English.

I always knew that translation was going to be a challenge, but a big surprise was finding how many Francophone and Lusophone African countries have no literature available in English translation. I assumed that because French and Portuguese are widely spoken around the world it would be easy to find translations of books written in those languages, but there was very little. Can you believe, for example, that not a single novel from Madagascar is available in English? The country has well over 22 million people and yet people who speak only English can’t read any of its stories.

I think the most powerful thing about the experience as how it made the world real to me. Over the year, the list of countries that had felt rather distant and mysterious at the start of the year became vivid and characterful. I also made so many connections with readers and writers all over the world and was amazed at the generosity of the many people I’ve never met, who got behind the project, and the enthusiasm that people showed for the idea. It was a lesson that even in our conflict-riven world, people can come together across cultural boundaries and stories can play a big part in that.

PP: You’ve now finished the project—how many books did you actually read? And was it hard to finish—I imagine you get emails all the time with suggestions for books.

AM: I read 197 books—one from each UN recognized nation plus Taiwan and plus one extra territory voted for by blog readers. They chose The Man in Blue Pyjamas by Jalal Barzanji from Kurdistan.

It was a big challenge, but I kept on top of the reading by making sure I stuck to reading my required number of pages each day. I still get messages from people suggesting books. I hope that won’t stop — it’s lovely to hear from enthusiastic readers sharing stories they really care about.

PP: Could you describe a few of the most touching exchanges you have had with readers/publishers or writers about their work?

AM: I had a lovely series of letters from the Honduran writer and painter Guillermo Yuscaran. He was delighted that I decided to write about one of his books on the blog and sent me a package of postcards of all his paintings and some more collections of his short stories. He’d even drawn a self-portrait of himself on the flyleaf of one of the books.

I also had a lovely exchange with the Burundian writer Marie-Thérèse Toyi. I had struggled to find a book in English from Burundi, so when a member of the United Burundian-American Community Association told me that he had been at school in Burundi with a woman called Marie-Thérèse Toyi who had written a novel in English, I lost no time looking for it. I couldn’t see how to buy the novel online, but I did find Marie-Thérèse Toyi. She was teaching at a university in Nigeria, so I sent her an email asking how I could get a copy of her book. She couriered me a copy, complete with a message encouraging me in my quest written inside the cover and we’ve been in touch ever since.

PP: Has your impression of literary translation changed since you began your project?

AM: Yes, I’ve come to appreciate what a skilled, intricate process it is and how vital translation is for cross-cultural understanding. It’s amazing that translators have traditionally had so little recognition. Even nowadays, it’s unusual to see a translator credited on the cover of a book. In all the 197 books I read, only my Japanese choice, Manazuru by Hiromi Kawakami, credited its translator, Michael Emmerich on the spine.

PP: If you had to pick five—or ten of your favorite books, what would they be?

AM: It’s difficult because many of the most interesting books I read are not commercially available — they were sent to me especially by writers and translators. However, my favorites among those books available to buy would be:

Albania – Ismail Kadaré Broken April

Canada – Nicole Brossard Mauve Desert

Czech Republic – Bohumil Hrabal Too Loud a Solitude

Mongolia – Galsan Tschinag The Blue Sky

Myanmar – Nu Nu Yi Smile as they Bow

Pakistan – Jamil Ahmad The Wandering Falcon

Serbia – Srdjan Valjarevic Lake Como (limited availability)

Sierra Leone – Ismael Beah A Long Way Gone

Tajikistan – Andrei Volos Hurramabad

Togo – Tete-Michel Kpomassie An African in Greenland

Ann Morgan is working on two new projects, the first is what she calls a web adventure, imagining what the world might have been like if women had been in charge from the beginning of time.

The second is a world bookshop challenge in which she is asking readers worldwide to send her information about their local bookshops and how many different countries are represented in the books on the shelves.

About the Author

Olivia Snaije

Olivia Snaije is a journalist and editor based in Paris who writes about the Middle East, multiculturalism, translation, literature, and graphic novels. She is a contributor to newspapers and magazines including The Guardian, Harper’s Bazaar Art, The Global Post, The New York Times and CNN.