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Reading the world in 196 books

2014-07-21 14:40 China Daily Web Editor: Yao Lan

Reading the world in 196 books

Writer Ann Morgan set herself a challenge – to read a book from every country in the world in one year. She describes the experience and what she learned.

I used to think of myself as a fairly cosmopolitan sort of person, but my bookshelves told a different story. Apart from a few Indian novels and the odd Australian and South African book, my literature collection consisted of British and American titles. Worse still, I hardly ever tackled anything in translation. My reading was confined to stories by English-speaking authors.

So, at the start of 2012, I set myself the challenge of trying to read a book from every country (well, all 195 UN-recognised states plus former UN member Taiwan) in a year to find out what I was missing.

With no idea how to go about this beyond a sneaking suspicion that I was unlikely to find publications from nearly 200 nations on the shelves of my local bookshop, I decided to ask the planet's readers for help. I created a blog called A Year of Reading the World and put out an appeal for suggestions of titles that I could read in English.

The response was amazing. Before I knew it, people all over the planet were getting in touch with ideas and offers of help. Some posted me books from their home countries. Others did hours of research on my behalf. In addition, several writers, like Turkmenistan's Ak Welsapar and Panama's Juan David Morgan, sent me unpublished translations of their novels, giving me a rare opportunity to read works otherwise unavailable to the 62% of Brits who only speak English. Even with such an extraordinary team of bibliophiles behind me, however, sourcing books was no easy task. For a start, with translations making up only around 4.5 per cent of literary works published in the UK and Ireland, getting English versions of stories was tricky.

Small states

This was particularly true for francophone and lusophone (Portuguese-speaking) African countries. There's precious little on offer for states such as the Comoros, Madagascar, Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique – I had to rely on unpublished manuscripts for several of these. And when it came to the tiny island nation of Sao Tome & Principe, I would have been stuck without a team of volunteers in Europe and the US who translated a book of short stories by Santomean writer Olinda Beja just so that I could have something to read.

Then there were places where stories are rarely written down. If you're after a good yarn in the Marshall Islands, for example, you're more likely to go and ask the local iroij's (chief's) permission to hear one of the local storytellers than you are to pick up a book. Similarly, in Niger, legends have traditionally been the preserve of griots (expert narrators-cum-musicians trained in the nation's lore from around the age of seven). Written versions of their fascinating performances are few and far between – and can only ever capture a small part of the experience of listening for yourself.

If that wasn't enough, politics threw me the odd curveball too. The foundation of South Sudan on 9 July 2011 – although a joyful event for its citizens, who had lived through decades of civil war to get there – posed something of a challenge. Lacking roads, hospitals, schools or basic infrastructure, the six-month-old country seemed unlikely to have published any books since its creation. If it hadn't been for a local contact putting me in touch with writer Julia Duany, who penned me a bespoke short story, I might have had to catch a plane to Juba and try to get someone to tell me a tale face to face.

All in all, tracking down stories like these took as much time as the reading and blogging. It was a tall order to fit it all in around work and many were the nights when I sat bleary-eyed into the small hours to make sure I stuck to my target of reading one book every 1.87 days.

Head space

But the effort was worth it. As I made my way through the planet's literary landscapes, extraordinary things started to happen. Far from simply armchair travelling, I found I was inhabiting the mental space of the storytellers. In the company of Bhutanese writer Kunzang Choden, I wasn't simply visiting exotic temples, but seeing them as a local Buddhist would. Transported by the imagination of Galsan Tschinag, I wandered through the preoccupations of a shepherd boy in Mongolia's Altai Mountains. With Nu Nu Yi as my guide, I experienced a religious festival in Myanmar from a transgender medium's perspective.

In the hands of gifted writers, I discovered, bookpacking offered something a physical traveller could hope to experience only rarely: it took me inside the thoughts of individuals living far away and showed me the world through their eyes. More powerful than a thousand news reports, these stories not only opened my mind to the nuts and bolts of life in other places, but opened my heart to the way people there might feel.

And that in turn changed my thinking. Through reading the stories shared with me by bookish strangers around the globe, I realised I was not an isolated person, but part of a network that stretched all over the planet.

One by one, the country names on the list that had begun as an intellectual exercise at the start of the year transformed into vital, vibrant places filled with laughter, love, anger, hope and fear. Lands that had once seemed exotic and remote became close and familiar to me – places I could identify with. At its best, I learned, fiction makes the world real.


作家安娜-摩根给自己设下了一个挑战-----在一年的时间里从世界上每个国家的文学作品中选出一本进行阅读。 她讲述了自己的这段经历以及她的收获。

我曾经认为自己是一个见多识广,海纳百川的人,但我的书架表明这并非事实。 除了几本印度小说,零散的一些澳大利亚和南非的书之外,我的藏书全是英美文学。



开始时,我根本无从下手,因为我暗自怀疑我是否能在当地的书店找到来自近200个国家的出版物。于是,我决定向全球读者求助。我创建了一个名为“一年读遍世界”的博客, 请网友们推荐我能够用英语阅读的作品。

我的博客收到了意想不到的回应。世界各地读者很快给我提供了各种点子和帮助。有些人给我寄来来自他们国家的书,有些人花费几小时的时间帮我做调查。而且,一些自己是作家的人,像是土库曼斯坦的Ak Welsapar,巴拿马的Juan David Morgan,把他们还未正式出版的小说译本寄给我,让我有机会阅读62%只会英语的英国人根本没机会阅读的作品。即便有一群如此出色的爱书者默默支持着我,寻找这195本书仍非易事。首先,在英国和爱尔兰,只有4.5%的世界文学作品被翻译并且最终出版,要得到一些英文版的图书并不容易。


这一问题在寻找来自说法语和葡萄牙语的非洲国家的作品是尤为明显。类似科摩罗,马达加斯加,几内亚比绍,莫桑比克这些国家,译成英文的作品少之又少------- 我不得不数次依靠阅读没有发表的手稿来完成任务。在寻找来自小岛国圣多美普林西比的作品时,要不是一群来自欧洲和美国的志愿者帮我翻译了圣普作家Olinda Beja的一本短篇小说合集,我的读书计划就很难完成了。


如果这些困难还不算什么,政治问题可是给我出了个大难题。南苏丹在2011年7月9日才正式建立,对饱尝了几十年内战之苦的苏丹人命来说,这无疑是一个大喜讯,但同时也带来了一个问题。这个六个月前才成立的国家缺乏一切诸如道路,医院,学校的基础设施,更别说有出版机构出版图书了。如果不是一个当地人帮我联系上了作家Julia Duany, 给我专门写了一个短篇小说,我可能就得搭上飞到Juba的一班飞机,找个人当面给我讲个故事了。



然而这一年的努力都是值得的。当我在这个星球的文学版图上步步前行时,神奇的事情发生了。这些阅读不像是坐在躺椅上被动地前进,我感受到我是在作者的精神世界里探索。有不丹作家Kunzang Choden作伴,我仿佛化身僧侣,拜访异国的庙宇。随着Galsan Tachinag的想象, 我好似山间牧童,漫步于蒙古的阿尔泰山。有Nu Nu Yi做我的向导, 我体验了一位变性母亲视角下的宗教节日。





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