Suneetha Balakrishnan talks to British blogger Ann Morgan about her extraordinary journey of words that touched 196 countries.
When the world came to London in 2012, for the Olympics, Ann Morgan, a Londoner, wanted to reciprocate the gesture. She decided to travel the world too, but through books.
Her plan was simple. She intended to read a book each from the 196 U.N.-recognised countries and throw in a 197th from ‘the rest of the world’ for good measure. But it wasn’t as easy as it looked. The numerous dots on the map offered more than Morgan bargained for. Plus, she did not foresee the unprecedented interest that her blog (http://ayearofreadingtheworld.com/) would create. But Morgan says the choice of the book was itself the most difficult of tasks. Morgan lives in the U.K., where only three percent of the books published each year are translations. Elsewhere, there are countries with only oral traditions and have next to nothing by way of books, and there are yet others who frown at art going outside borders. And then what defines national literature; is it a book by a resident, about the country, or one by a person born there? In a country with multiple languages, how does one choose? In case of a single language spoken, does one choose a classic or a contemporary work? A daunting task, Yet Morgan persisted. Her experience of a ‘year of reading women writers’ plus help from her blog readers stood her in good stead. The guideline was: the books should be ‘the literature’ of a country and a ‘good’ read.
Morgan adopted a sensible method to avoid the ‘danger of a single story’. “As I intended to read only one book from each country this year, I couldn’t make the mistake of thinking that I have gained a rounded insight into any particular nation. I’d be annoyed if someone assumed they knew all about Britain just from reading Great Expectations! For me, the project was more about exploring and accessing voices than garnering complete pictures of life in other places. I was careful never to read a book as a reflection of national characteristics or mindsets.”
She also paid attention to the opinions of readers from those countries and checked out regional book prizes. Sometimes the story behind a book was so fascinating that she had to read it. “My Bhutanese choice, for example, The Circle of Karma by Kunzang Choden, stood out from the recommendations sent to me by the Writers Association of Bhutan because it is said to be the first book by a Bhutanese woman to be published outside the country. That intrigued me.”
Her target was to read a book in 1.85 days, and blog about it, while she went about her normal routine. “I decided the only way to approach it was to break it down. To stay on track, I needed to aim to read four books a week. That’s reading one book every two days and then one short book in one day once a week, with a little give and take for very long and very short works. As most books are between 200-300 pages, this meant reading 100-150 pages a day, around three hours. My daily commute — when I got a lot of reading done — was an hour each way, so this necessitated finding an extra hour or two at lunch and in the evenings after work. I then had to write the blog posts and do all the research into the books, so I got up early and spent a couple of hours on that each day before I left for work.”
Morgan bought all the books herself except when people, especially those following the blog, gave her their copies. Even authors and publishers sent her their work — at times unpublished — to read. “It was a great privilege to be one of the few people, sometimes ever, to read the English versions. A couple of the books, such as my Belarusian choice – King Stakh’s Wild Hunt by Uladzimir Karatkievich – were also available free online. Still, it was rather an expensive year!”
Morgan says the project is nothing like her previous book blogging endeavours. Now she questions things that she once took for granted, from what the word ‘country’ means to what we talk about when we call something a ‘book’. “It has also brought me into contact with people all over the planet, and for that I’m very grateful. My world is a much richer place for it.”
A single incident that she would call the defining moment of the project? “In October 2011, less than three days after the blog post went live, Rafidah from Malaysia liked the project and told me she wanted to buy me a book to read. That was the moment I knew the project was really happening. Somewhere, 6,000 miles away, a person I had never met was going to a shop to buy a book on my behalf. I owed it to her and to all the other people supporting me to give it my best shot.”
Morgan finds it impossible to pick the best/favourite reads in 2012. There are some books that are just so beautifully written that they stand out in her mind. “Galsan Tschinag’s The Blue Sky from Mongolia is one, as is Andrei Volos’s Hurramabad from Tajikistan. My Burundian book, Weep Not, Refugee by Marie-ThérèseToyi is special because it was sent to me by the author from Africa after a search that involved many Burundians around the world.”
There were also books that changed her thinking. “Of these, Abdul Aziz Al Mahmoud’s The Corsair stands out. It is one of the first Qatari novels to be translated into English and is set during the early 19th century during the struggle for control of the trade routes through the Persian Gulf. The picture, the novel presents, of the role Britain played in the region during that time, is far from flattering and forced me to confront some of the darker stories attached to the British Empire, which many people in the U.K. prefer to forget.”
So her most prominent discovery of 2012 in reads? ‘Perhaps my Mozambican read, Ualalapi by Ungulani Ba KaKhosa. It was named one of Africa’s 100 Best Books of the 20th Century by an African jury in 2002, but is unavailable in English translation. I was lucky enough to be given an unpublished manuscript by a publisher who had been going to launch an English version but sadly went out of business before he could do so.” It is an extraordinary book, full of startling imagery unlike anything I have come across before and with a towering legendary hero who stands alongside great tragic figures such as Oedipus, King Lear and Okonkwo from Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.
Morgan also mentions A Casa do Pastor by Olinda Beja. “This collection of short stories by a writer born in Sao Tome and Principe, the second-smallest African nation, was specially translated for me by a team of Portuguese speakers in Europe and the U.S. after I struggled to find anything I could read in English from the country. It was very humbling to have such a talented group of people give up their time to help me complete my quest.”
Her most difficult choice? “India, without question. I could easily have spent 10 years reading Indian literature and still not have scratched the surface of the rich and diverse stories the country has to offer. But an Indian journalist stopped by the blog and pointed out a key omission in the nominations: all the books were written in English. This was second-best to the literature on offer from the many languages spoken across the country. I was struck by the comment, particularly as translation was a big part of my project, so I found a translation of Malayalam writer M.T. Vasudevan Nair’s classic Kaalam and enjoyed it immensely.”
“Reading is a great way to stand next to someone in a situation you have never been in and look at the world through their eyes. .”
She is also conscious of the amazing moment in history we live in. ‘The internet makes it possible for us to build links with one another as never before. Twenty years ago it would have been impossible to read the world in a year. I hope that as Internet law and the monetisation of social media take hold we are able to preserve the incredible freedom of communication that we have at the moment in most parts of the planet.’
The natural progression of a blog of these dimensions would be a book, and it is happening. “Reading the World: Postcards from my Bookshelf will come out in early 2014 and will tell many of the stories behind the stories that I read that year.”
Her next project is ifwomenruled.com and an attempt to gain an insight through fiction of what the strengths, challenges and problems of a women-led society might have been.
Happy reading, Ann Morgan!
Keywords: blogger Ann Morgan