Ann Morgan is a Cambridge grad, an avid reader who blogs about the books she reads. Back in 2011, she was struck by the fact that most of the books she had read were by English and North American authors. In order to correct this imbalance, she set out to read one book from each country on the globe and blog about it. It was an ambitious year long project , since it meant she would be reading and blogging about four books every week in addition to working at her job as a full time job as a journalist and taking care of her home. The World Between Two Covers is the title of the book she wrote describing the difficulties that she encountered and what she learned about the world of books and publishing; the book’s subtitle is Reading the Globe.
I must confess that when I began reading the book, I wasn’t sure about the usefulness of her project. My reasoning was that she would not get a feel for a country by just reading a single book from(about) it. The problem would be compounded in the case of large countries which are home to a variety of cultures. For example, the Indian book that she read was Kaalam by M.T Vasudevan Nair, a writer from the southernmost Indian state of Kerala who writes in Malayalam. A book set in Kerala has little in common with others set in Punjab or Bengal or Maharashtra; each state in India has its own language and is very different from the others. Even in the case of small countries, one book hardly defines its literature, its society or its customs, no matter how good it might be. When you consider that the books she read included classics, folktales, novels and short stories her mission seems even more quixotic.
I was mistaken.
Reading one book per country may not give you a clear picture of the country or its society but, taken in the aggregate, it gives you a clearer picture of the world we live in. The World Between Two Covers is a compelling book that covers many different subjects. Some of the topics she covers:
How Culture skews our impression of the world and our place in it.
Cultural identity and the problem of authenticity.
The dominance of the English language.
The difficulty of becoming a published writer if you don’t write in English and/or are not from the UK or the US.
The Internet and the rising tide of self publishing.
Oral narratives and the difficulty of getting them down in writing.
Censorship. propaganda and exiled writers.
And many more…
What started Ann Morgan on this journey was the preponderance of books published in English. I had known English was the world’s dominant language but not the extent of its primacy. On a trip to Jamaica some years ago, I entered a bookshop looking for a book on West Indies cricket. To my surprise, there was not a single book published locally; every single one was imported, mostly from England. No wonder the famous writers the Caribbean has produced ( V.S. Naipaul, Derek Walcott, Jamaica Kincaid to name a few) are all expatriates. As English consolidates its position, other languages are losing ground. Of the 6,000 tongues spoken in the world today, it is estimated that 90% are in danger of extinction. Morgan quotes an expert who gives this saddening statistic:” … every two weeks, the last speaker of a fading language dies”.
It is heartening to read of the help Ann Morgan received from different people, many of them strangers who came to know of her endeavor through her blog. People whom she had never met were generous in helping her obtain books from little known countries. Finding titles from countries like Burkina Faso, Benin, South Sudan or North Korea would have been next to impossible without such helpers. In many cases, they made recommendations. Sometimes they gifted their own copies. In one case, they even helped by translate the book into English. There is a camaraderie among book lovers and , perhaps, Ann Morgan’s benefactors recognized in her a kindred spirit.
A book about topics such as reading, language, censorship and publishing can very easily become tedious. Not this one. Morgan writes extremely well and tosses in the odd fact that keeps the reader engaged. Who knew for instance that the puritanical US postal inspector Anthony Comstock was aided in his censorship efforts by the YMCA which gave him $ 8,500 ( a huge sum in 1872)? Or that James Joyce’s Ulysses, considered the finest novel of the 20th century, might not have seen the light of day except for the efforts of Sylvia Beach and her Paris bookshop, Shakespeare and Company? I certainly didn’t.
Morgan has a light touch and a way with words. As a young child, she saw protesters burning piles of Salman Rushdie’s ” Satanic Verses” and it left a deep impression on her. A few years later when she was still in her early teens, she used her precious pocket-money to buy a copy of the book. Alas, she was in for a disappointment. In her words, ” … I pushed myself on to the final page with the same sense of duty that I applied to Brussels sprouts on Christmas Day: the thing just had to be got through.” (LOL)
At the end of the book, Morgan gives a list of the 197 books that she read. If you want to know what she felt about each of those books you can read about them on her blog ayearofreadingtheworld.com. It would be interesting to know how she feels about a certain title and I plan to dip into her blog now and again. Whether you do or not, you might want to read The World Between Two Covers. It is an interesting book on many levels and your time would be well spent.