Reading the World: An Interview with Ann Morgan

Photo: Aida Silvestri

Ann Morgan is a writer based in the UK who has inspired readers by her project, A Year of Reading the World. In 2012, she read a book from every country in the world and blogged about it. Her blog highlights the richness and diversity of books, including those not originally published in English.  

Ann has written about her experiences in Reading the World (published as The World Between Two Covers in the US). She has also written two novels, Beside Myself and Crossing Over. Ann is a TED speaker, and Royal Literary Fund fellow and editor.

Talking About Books interviewed Ann about her journey through reading.

TAB: Your project, Reading the World, is truly inspirational. Could you tell us how it started?

AM: Thanks! A comment someone left on a blog I was running ten years ago got me thinking about how little literature I used to read from countries other than the UK and US. I couldn’t explain this and the more I thought about it, the stranger it seemed that I would limit myself to such a small proportion of the world’s stories.

The next year, 2012, was set to be a very international one for the UK, with the Olympics coming to London and plans for big celebrations for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. So I decided to spend it trying to read a novel, short-story collection or memoir from every UN-recognized country (plus a couple of extras) and blogging about each book.

As I didn’t know what to choose or even how to find books from some places, I decided to ask the world’s booklovers to help me with advice and suggestions. I registered the domain name ayearofreadingtheworld.com, set up the blog with WordPress and put a call out on social media. Before long I was inundated with recommendations and other offers of help.

TAB: What were your criteria for selecting a book?

AM: This varied from place to place. Sometimes a book caught my imagination or just sounded so tempting I had to read it. At other times, visitors to the blog made very convincing arguments as to why I had to go for certain titles. A few books got so many recommendations that they were obviously national favourites. And in the cases of countries with very little work in translation, I was often lucky to find even one option.

India was perhaps the best example of a difficult decision. With more than 1.2 billion people and thousands of publishers, it has an almost unimaginable number of stories available. I had so many recommendations for books from there that I couldn’t begin to pick one—and everyone I asked for help just suggested more books! Luckily, just when I thought I would never solve the conundrum, a woman called Suneetha Balakrishnan stopped by the blog. She was a journalist with the Indian newspaper The Hindu, and she had an observation to make about the books that people had recommended: she noticed that all the titles were books that had been written in English. To her mind, this was second-best to titles written in India’s 22 other official languages and hundreds of other dialects. She suggested I try one of them and mentioned that one of her favourite authors was MT Vasudevan Nair, who writes in Malayalam. She really got me thinking and so I decided to follow her advice and found a translation of his novel Kaalam, which I very much enjoyed.

The nice thing about this story is that Suneetha and I have stayed in touch. She interviewed me for The Hindu and recently contacted me to tell me that she had been inspired by our communications to launch a reading project of her own, highlighting India’s diverse literatures (http://readingacrossindia.wordpress.com/). We’re still in touch to this day.

TAB: Were there countries from which it was difficult to get books? How did you deal with this?

At the time of my quest around 11 UN-recognized nations had no commercially available literature in English translation. In these cases, finding things to read involved a lot of research, contacting experts and enthusiasts around the world, and keeping my fingers very firmly crossed. In many cases, I had to rely on unpublished translations sent to me by authors or translators.

One of the incredible things about the project was the generosity of booklovers all over the world, who went far beyond recommending titles to help me. The first indication of this came just four days after I had written my original appeal for suggestions. A woman called Rafidah in Kuala Lumpur left a comment offering to go to her local English-language bookshop, choose my Malaysian book and post it to me. It was such a kind thing to do for a stranger more than 6,000 miles away that it really inspired me to embrace the project and give it my very best efforts.

In fact, Rafidah’s kindness proved to be the pattern throughout the year: time and again people I didn’t know did research for me, sent me unpublished translations of books that I wouldn’t have been able to read otherwise and even, in the case of the world’s newest country, South Sudan, wrote me something to read.

Probably the most amazing story was to do with the book I read from São Tomé and Príncipe. Like many French- and Portuguese-speaking African nations, STP has very little literature that has been translated into English. In fact, when I tried to find a book that I could read, I drew a complete blank. There seemed to be nothing out there. Eventually, my now-husband Steve suggested that I try to get people to translate something for me. I couldn’t imagine that anyone would want to give up so much time to do that, but a week after I had tweeted my request, I had more volunteers than I could use. They included leading translator Margaret Jull Costa, who was awarded an OBE for her services to literature by the Queen last year. The volunteers, who were spread across Europe and the US, all undertook to translate different short stories from a collection by the writer Olinda Beja. They all kept to their word and, within six weeks, I had a translation of the entire book to read.

TAB: What were some of your unexpected discoveries?

AM: There were lots of surprises so it’s hard to pick any one thing out. The book I read from Togo was a big surprise and I was surprised by the amount of humour in much of the Eastern European fiction I read. Many people in the UK tend to think of Eastern Europeans as being quite serious, but a lot of the novels from Eastern Europe were some of the funniest books I have read.

TAB: I cannot get over the fact that you read 197 books in one year, while working full-time, and blogged about them! How did you find the time?

It wasn’t easy to read all those books. I had to be very organized. I calculated how much I needed to get through every day (around 150 pages to keep on track to read four books a week) and made sure I stuck to it. This meant reading for two hours on my commute (I was working five days a week as a freelance journalist for most of the year) and an hour or two in the evening. I sometimes read in my lunch break too. And on Saturdays I tended to spend the morning in bed with a book. I also got very good at reading at odd moments – while walking along the road and going up escalators, for example, and on the exercise bike in the gym.

I quickly found out that the reading was only half the battle – writing the blog posts and doing all the research to find the books took as much time, so I got up early to spend an hour or two on this before I left for work. I was very grateful to the many readers who helped me out with information and suggestions along the way, and to my friends, family and Steve for putting up with me being quite boring that year! For all the hard work, though, it was a lot of fun. The generosity and enthusiasm of the many people around the world who followed the blog, helped me source titles and posted kind comments every day kept me going and cheered me across the finish line. I couldn’t have done it without them.

TAB: You began this project in 2012. Now, nearly a decade later, do you feel that books in translation are easier to come by?

AM: There has definitely been an improvement, and it’s been great to see the sales figures for translated literature climbing in the UK in recent years. I think there is more awareness and a greater appetite for books from other traditions and cultures, and publishers are responding to this.

This can create its own challenges, however. Although there are many small presses publishing a spread of brave and adventurous titles, there can be a tendency for big publishers to construct an impression of a nation’s literature based around what has sold well. This can mean that, instead of readers discovering the breadth of a nation’s stories, they are encouraged to buy a relatively narrow Western construct of what that country has to offer. There is work to do to address this.

TAB: Tell us about yourself. Have you always been writing?

Yes. Although it was a long time before I wrote much worth reading. The books I have read during and since my quest have played a huge part in turning me into a decent writer. I’m much more aware of the complexity of situations around the world and more conscious of some of the assumptions that underpin my own thinking and the stories that surround us here in the UK. I am much braver and more imaginative in my writing because I have experienced a much wider range of storytelling techniques and seen far more ways of imagining and looking at the world. And I now have a great network of friends and fellow booklovers all around the globe.

TAB: What advice would you give a writer who is starting out?

AM: My advice would be to be open-minded and versatile. If you can develop several skills that you can use to earn money around or connected to your writing, that’s a great thing. When I first started out as a freelance writer, I paid my rent partly through singing. Later on, sub-editing provided me with a way in to lots of newspapers and magazines where I could make contacts with editors who went on to commission me.

I also learned how to improve my own writing by editing other people’s. Copywriting can also be a good freelance option. Other people find that a steady, relatively undemanding day job or part-time job in an unconnected field can be a valuable way of supporting themselves while they get established. It all depends on how much stability matters to you, and it’s important to be honest with yourself about that.

Of course, a lucky few people still do get permanent jobs in newspapers and magazines, but the numbers are dwindling—and doing that can mean you don’t get such a wide range of experience, or have as much time to work on your own projects. Be persistent and don’t get downhearted if you have to do some very unexciting work along the way—you may end up writing about it years down the line.

TAB: Your project has inspired a lot of people to widen their reading horizons. It is crucial to listen to other voices and other stories that are outside our own experience. Thank you for the inspiration and for sharing your journey with us.

You can find Ann’s blog at ayearofreadingtheworld.com.

2 thoughts on “Reading the World: An Interview with Ann Morgan

    1. suroor alikhan

      Yes, it is! So many people are doing this now, thanks to Ann. Send me an email if you would like to join our group reading our way around the world.

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