Exploring the world, one book at a time.
American bookstores stock only a tiny selection of translated works, making it nearly impossible for readers to gain access to world literature. In her lively, debut book, journalist and blogger Morgan, regretting that she has been “a literary xenophobe,” recounts her project to spend a year reading one book, translated or written in English, from every country in the world. That project proved more difficult than she imagined: In many countries, publishers release thousands of translated copies of Anglophone authors, rather than support indigenous writers. The literary world, therefore, has been dominated by books from a few nations, and readers “can never entirely remove the blinkers and filters put on our reading goggles.” Censorship has impeded publication, too, as Morgan discovered when she tried to find literature from North Korea. A cultural delegate responded that “he was not aware of any adult fiction produced in the entire seven-decade history of the republic” but only politically oriented works that “demonstrated loyalty, honour, and self-sacrifice for the motherland.” The ubiquity of English has had an impact on academic writing as well as commercial books. Scholars worry “that other languages are denuded of the specialist terms needed to express complex ideas and discoveries” by the pressure to write in English. Some fiction writers, striving for publication, try to imitate Western-style novels rather than draw upon their own cultures. Reading indigenous works that evoke a new time and place, though—like a hugely popular young-adult series written by a Samoan housewife—confronted Morgan with ideas and views that felt startlingly fresh. An appendix lists 196 books that the author read on her journey, including selections from Bhutan, Cape Verde, Ivory Coast, Iraq and Sierra Leone; most were published by small, independent presses.
Morgan’s intrepid literary project underscores the crucial importance of stretching the boundaries of one’s aesthetic and intellectual worlds.