Reading Around the World

Back in September I was absolutely intrigued by this article about a gal who spent a year reading one book—not travel writing; literature—from each of the world’s 196 independent countries. At the beginning of the year, I’d thought I myself might have a Year of Reading* Non-American Books developing—or at least a year of reading books outside the American culture I’m used to—but then a friend had a book published, and there was a memoir I absolutely couldn’t wait to read, and before long that international list I had goin’ on all spring had become a little less international (though no less interesting).

The whole idea of Ann Morgan’s Reading the World: Postcards from my Bookshelf really tripped my trigger. (We’ll set aside the idea that Morgan had to read four to five books a week, a grueling pace that allows little time for appreciation, much less comprehension or retention. This is, essentially, a stunt, and I’m fine with that.) I posted the article on Facebook and a few of us had a lively discussion about it.

The article features this link, which is a list of books Morgan considered for the project, categorized by country. OK, but if you look closely, you see she has Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief listed under Australia. And sure enough, Zusak is Australian. But the book doesn’t deal with Australian subject matter—it’s set in Germany during World War 2. So what makes that book Australian, exactly? Just off the top of my head, I think you’d get more Australian “flavor” from Elliot Perlman’s Seven Types of Ambiguity, which is set in Melbourne. (And which I really enjoyed.)

You could go on down Morgan’s list and find other books that don’t necessarily meet the criteria I’ve imagined—American Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible is set mostly in Africa, for example—so what’s that “postcards from my bookshelf” in the subtitle really mean? I thought it was a grand idea but I was curious about the methodology.

Which made me wonder, of course, What’s on my bookshelf? (Short answer: nowhere near 196 countries.) My bookshelf exercise made me think a little more about methodology. (It’s not as easy as you think. Morgan chose independent countries, but my little highly unscientific list eschews the UK as a category and opts instead for England, Scotland, and Wales, because political boundaries notwithstanding, those are very different regions—just ask the Welsh or the Scots.) I’ve listed here only books I’ve read—predominantly contemporary authors who write about their country of birth or a country in which they lived long-term, and in such a way we might consider it a “postcard” from that place. Call it my “flavor list.”

• Afghanistan
The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns / Khaled Hosseini **

• Australia
Seven Types of Ambiguity / Elliot Perlman

• Botswana
the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series / Alexander McCall Smith

• Canada
Cat’s Eye / Margaret Atwood
Alias Grace / Margaret Atwood
The Blind Assassin / Margaret Atwood
the Armand Gamache series / Louise Penny

• England
Possession / A. S. Byatt
Fever Pitch / Nick Hornby
The Rotter’s Club / Jonathan Coe

• Germany
The Reader / Bernhard Schlink
Group Portrait with Lady / Heinrich Böll

• Ireland
The Gathering / Ann Enright
the Barrytown Trilogy / Roddy Doyle

• Italy
Marcovaldo / Italo Calvino

• Kenya
Out of Africa / Isak Dinesen

• The Netherlands
Assault, The / Harry Mulisch

• Russia
The Gulag Archipelago / Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich / Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
The First Circle / Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Cancer Ward / Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Doctor Zhivago / Boris Pasternak

• Rwanda
Letters Home / Fergal Keane

• Scotland
the Inspector Rebus series / Ian Rankin
the Isabel Dalhousie series / Alexander McCall Smith
Glue / Irvine Welsh

• South Africa
July’s People / Nadine Gordimer
Cry, the Beloved Country / Alan Paton

• Spain
Soldiers of Salamis / Javier Cercas
The Shadow of the Wind / Carlos Ruiz Zafón

• Sri Lanka
Anil’s Ghost / Michael Ondaatje

• Sweden
Borkman’s Point / Håkan Nesser

• Wales
The Grey King / Susan Cooper

As you can see, I haven’t been all that adventurous. I’ve always enjoyed reading about other countries and cultures, but my criteria for this post were very narrow. I haven’t checked Morgan’s final list—you can click on each country name in her book list and see which title she settled on—but I suspect she also wanted a flavor list.

In our Facebook discussion, my friend Michelle said, “One of the things I like about reading non-American/non-UK authors is the different perspective on society in general, and our times in particular. I read [a lot of books from] Rwanda because I was trying to understand what happened in that society twenty years ago and going to the source made more sense than the Westerners’ explanations.” That’s it exactly.

So I was pleased to find an interview with Morgan that asked for a list of her favorites. She offers nine—Albania, Canada, Mongolia, Myanmar, Pakistan, Serbia, Sierra Leone, Tajikistan, and Togo. If those don’t suit, here’s a list of twenty international titles from Publishers Weekly. Aren’t those covers interesting? Be sure to let me know which one you read first. :)

* You do understand when I talk about what I’m reading, I mean my pleasure reading, not my work reading, right?

** Morgan expressed a little Khaled Hosseini fatigue, but I enjoyed both these books.

Tweet: How international is YOUR reading list?
Tweet: I wondered, What’s on my bookshelf? (Short answer: nowhere near 196 countries.)

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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  1. Ellen says:

    Great idea, but I’d hate the pressure of a time limit. I like my reading to be leisurely. Your list gives me some good ideas of books I really want to read. Keep the suggestions coming! (And thanks).

    • Jamie says:

      Oh the time limit was just a stunt, and I can’t get behind it for myself. Like you, I want to enjoy my reading.

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