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Reading the World: Confessions of a Literary Explorer Hardcover – 5 Feb 2015
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"Reading The World is a treasure-trove of new discoveries" (Sara Wheeler Observer)
"A wonderful book" (Viv Groskop Red)
"An enjoyable book that brings a world of literature into our homes" (Ian Thomson Daily Telegraph)
"A great way into literature in translation" (Viv Groskop Red Online)
"A truly inspiring read" (Lady)
A thought-provoking and eye-opening journey through world literature inspired by a quest to read a book from every country.See all Product description
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The book certainly inspired me to broaden my reading. I consider myself to read pretty widely and certainly have a number of favourite international authors but Ann's achievement is pretty impressive. Of the 160 odd books Morgan listed at the end I was pleased to find I had actually already read 4, or 5 if I count vol 1 of the Arabian Nights!
“Travel broadens the mind “ they say. I am mostly an armchair traveller but Morgan's study also touches on research that is able to offer some sort of proof that reading itself, so long as one takes in a varied diet, is one of the most effective ways to literally broaden the mind and break down prejudice.
The book is approximately 300 pages long and split into 12 chapters.
The author starts talking about the definition of literature and the definition of countries. I was fairly tolerant of this to begin with as I understand her defining the boundaries and scope of the challenge. However, this pondering goes on throughout the whole book and it's not until the list at the back that I got the true scale and detail of all the books she had read. She tells us how hard the challenge was and lots about the people that she came across. I wanted to learn much more about the books and about the countries but there was not enough detail for me.
I think that she has written the book very much as a companion to the blog and that the blog would be a much better place to go to find out about the actual books, here she talks way too much about the process.
Reading the book has now put me off the whole idea though so I may give the blog a miss....
Yet again, this is a book where I find Amazon's star rating doesn't work. There were things about it I liked very much, and things I didn't really like at all. On the positive side - and it's very positive - Morgan shows a truly enterprising spirit, and a lot of enthusiasm, there are some interesting meditations on aspects of literature (the 'empathy' section, the section on writers living in oppressive regimes, the question of what world literature means) and some great stories about individual writers - I particularly enjoyed the account of the African man who moved to Greenland and on his return home struggled to describe snow to his family as there was no word for it in his native language; the story of the former Romanian gypsy circus performer who taught herself to read aged 17 and became a celebrated writer in her adoptive country Switzerland, and the two men who escaped persecution in East European countries formally part of the USSR. I enjoyed the section on African oral narrative traditions, where I really did learn something new. There were some interesting recommendations on the book list too. I came away thinking that it was a worthwhile project and admiring Morgan for doing it. And the warnings about isolationism and not knowing about other cultures ring horribly true today, three years on from when the book was published.
On the less positive side, I felt the book struggled to find a proper focus. It moved rather disconcertingly between the chattily anecdotal (lots about how Morgan's husband Steve is long-suffering!), and sections which almost read like drafts for lectures either for a course in comparative literature or in an MA in publishing (obviously, publishing has to come up in a book on world literature, but I felt here that it and the author's thoughts on world literature were often fighting for prominence). Although Morgan can be very insightful, she can also make very sweeping statements. I didn't enjoy all the self-laceration in the early chapters about how her bookshelves were 'too Western', partly due to our conditioning to think Europe is at the centre of things: yes, it is very important to know about other cultures, but a lot of European culture is mightily good - something Morgan doesn't stress enough. I found the writing on colonialism too simplistic - I don't like a lot of what I've heard about the British Empire, but dismissing it as completely bad in all ways, and depicting Kipling as a jingoistic colonialist isn't quite right either. Although I think what happened to Salman Rushdie post-'Satanic Verses' is lamentable, I think linking him with writers suffering under politically oppressive regimes and forced to become refugees isn't quite correct - Rushdie's situation was rather different. And I felt the chapter on the digital age was ultimately too one-sided, and didn't give enough voice to the problems of the digital age, how it's affected bookshops, our concentration for reading, sales of books etc etc. (And some of us don't have Smartphones because we can't afford to have them and have all the books that we'd like.) And I'm afraid I found the translation chapter oddly unsatisfying - I didn't feel I'd really learnt that much about the art of the translator in the end (in comparison to a more 'academic' lecture I attended at KCL Comparative Literature Seminars a few years earlier - which I actually found easier to take in).
I appreciate that projects such as this are a great way to make friends online, to get a bird's-eye view of world literature, and to get one thinking about other countries. But in the end I did find myself wondering about the value of the project as a way of acquainting oneself with world literature, and reading world literature for pleasure. For one thing, with 196 books to get through in 366 days, Morgan could only for the most part read short books (there's no way that you could start tackling things like 'Don Quixote' for Spain or 'War and Peace' for Russia). I'm not sure - she doesn't tell us here, maybe she does on the blog? (I haven't read this yet as like reviewer C Butler I'm not devoted to reading for pleasure online) - what her criteria for selecting books was, and how she managed to make choices for countries like France or Germany with a huge written literary tradition (with the Solomon or the Marshall Islands it must have been a little easier!). Having of necessity to be very precise about what constitutes a country means that places with very distinctive writing traditions get missed off - Scotland, say, or Sardinia, or Sicily. There is also a sense that with so much to choose from in one sense and so little (only one book per country) in another, a sense of value - what makes a 'good book' - is somewhat lost. In the end I'd very little idea which books Morgan really enjoyed, and which (other than the two which she felt were spoilt by the writer trying to copy American blockbusters) she felt didn't work, or really how her experiences did change her, and what they might lead on to.
Above all, I think that the real problem with a project like this, so time-consuming and so restricted in certain ways, if open in others, is that it takes some of the spontaneous joy out of reading. The great bibliophiles - I can think of the writer and lecturer Lorna Sage, the journalist Elizabeth Young and the singer Rolando Villazón to name just three past and present - all note that there's a fair degree of spontaneity in their choices of reading, and that their reading may appear 'undisciplined' to outsiders - and yet their captivating enthusiasm when they talk about books (lots of world literature too, certainly for Sage and Villazón, at least) makes one really feel how much fun reading is. With this book, despite the author's stressing of how much she enjoyed her project, and how much she learnt, there was a slight sense of a chore, and self-imposed duty at times, and oddly little enthusiasm came over for many of the books themselves. However, I may find all this on the blog, which I will explore in due course.
A very worthy endeavour though - and if it didn't quite convince me that may say as much about me as about the author.
Three and a half stars.
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