Being a literary explorer with Ann Morgan

In 2012, the world arrived in London for the Olympics…and Ann Morgan went out to meet it. She read her way around all the globe’s 196 independent countries (plus one extra), sampling one book from every nation. It wasn’t easy. Many languages have next to nothing translated into English; there are tiny, tucked-away places where very little is written down at all; some governments don’t like to let works of art leak out to corrupt Westerners.

Her literary adventures shed light on the issues that affect us all: personal, political, national and global.

On Thursday 12 November she was in conversation with Ella Berthoud, co author of The Novel Cure, discussing bibliotherapy, wellbeing, literary adventures, and more.

What does it mean to be a literary explorer?

Really, it’s about being curious. It means trying to move beyond the algorithms and trends pushed at us by the English-language publishing industry to find out what other stories are out there. Usually, this involves setting aside quite a few preconceptions and being open to what the world offers rather than looking for things that feel authentic to us. 

Why did you set out to read a book from every country in 2012?

The quest was fuelled by the need to address a blind spot in my personal reading. A chance comment from a stranger got me thinking about how little literature I used to read from countries other than the UK and US. I couldn’t explain this, so I decided to spend 2012 (a very international year for the UK, what with the Olympics and Jubilee) trying to read a novel, short-story collection or memoir from every UN-recognised country plus Taiwan – a total of 196 countries. 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 put a call out on social media and before long I was inundated with recommendations and other offers of help.

What did you learn from the project?

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. As a writer, I became much bolder, more imaginative and willing to take risks. The amazing stories I’ve read during and since my quest opened my eyes to the fact that there are many more approaches to storytelling than those we are used to in the West. And I now have great network of friends and fellow booklovers all around the globe. 

Did you notice any trends or traits from different areas and regions?

It’s difficult to extrapolate regional trends from reading only one book per nation. There are so many other factors at play and each book is only ever a tiny part of a national picture. There were certain themes that recurred in many of the stories – the importance of education, the desire for human connection, the ambition of parents to give their children better lives. By far the most striking trend I recognised, however, was the universality of the human impulse to share stories. In one way or another, we all do it, regardless of race, politics, religion or culture. This, it seems to me, makes storytelling one of the most powerful tools we have to bring people together.

Do we lose or gain anything from reading translations?

It depends on the translator. Some translations, such as the late Anthea Bell’s English versions of the Asterix stories, are even richer and funnier than the originals. Others struggle to get across all the shades of meaning in the source text. But it’s important to remember that without translation those of us who don’t read other languages would have no access to many of the world’s finest stories, which would be a huge loss.

Tell us some books we’ve never heard of but should definitely read.

I still update with a new book choice each month. Recent favourites include Mieko Kawakami’s touching and compulsive Breasts and Eggs (translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd), Nino Haratischvili’s epic Georgian family saga The Eighth Life: (for Brilka) (translated by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin) and Fernanda Melchor’s furious and terrifying Hurricane Season (translated by Sophie Hughes).

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