My Intercontinental Reading Challenge

If you want to read the world, if you want to encounter it with an open mind, the world will help you – Ann Morgan

Last year, as I mentioned in a previous blog post, I discovered a problem with my bookshelves. They were loaded with bestselling novels by award-winning authors who provided vividly evocative reads that set my imagination soaring. But, they were missing something crucial and often overlooked. They were missing the rest of the world.

Sometime last year, I chanced upon a TED presentation by Ann Morgan – the woman who, in 2012, challenged herself to read one book from every UN-recognized country in the world. It was an ambitious venture and it took a lot of creativity, ingenuity and a pinch of human kindness for her to achieve her goal. At the end of her worldly reading adventure, she used her platform to unveil a sad truth about the English publishing industry.

According to her research, English is the most published language on the globe, but only 2 – 3% of the books published in North America and the United Kingdom are translations of other works written in other languages (Anderson, 2014). If they are, they are often from “mainstream” countries which have thriving publishing industries connected to the North American and British ones. This is a bit disturbing for a reader, particularly when you realize the void this leaves in our libraries. We live in a world that is shaped by stories and an astonishing amount of these stories do not even reach English-speakers. Can you imagine how many misunderstandings and stereotypes could be eliminated if we had a chance to see the world through the eyes of another people? Culture? Ethnicity or race? It would be a very different world, indeed.

I am still proud of my 2016 readings. After all, as compared to my 2015 readings, I have increased my reading diversity by 8% (not including high fantasy or that one Martian), but Morgan’s talk lead me to a new epiphany about my bookshelves. Even though I did expose myself to more authors of colour and thus to new perspectives, my reading remained primarily American. In fact, 60% of the books I read last year were by Americans, set fully or partially in America, or had American characters (main and supporting).

This year, I want to do something a bit different. I would like to expand my global perspective even further. This year, I will be giving myself an intercontinental reading challenge.

About this Challenge

I started drafting my plan for this challenge in early November so I had a lot of time to plot. I wanted to have my reading drift freely from book to book like I had in 2015 while maintaining some order without being suffocating. To do this, I decided that the limiting factor for my reading would be geography rather than the author, location or main character of the book. Let me explain.

Dealing with the Geography

My original plan was to read two books from all 6 continents (and by continents I meant only major landmasses). That would make my year’s reading a breeze! I would just race through 12 books in six months or less and I would be finished! Except, that was one flaw among many other flaws I uncovered with that plan. Sticking rigidly to just the major landmasses meant ignoring the diversity concentrated in various unique regions across the continents. I would also be ignoring extra-continental regions such as the Caribbean or Oceania. So I went back to my geography books and with the help of a good friend of mine, I divided the globe into the following regions and sub-regions.

  1. Africa
    1. Central (West Coast to center, from Senegal to Democratic Republic of the Congo)
    2. Eastern (East coast e.g. Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, etc)
    3. Northern (e.g Egypt, Libya etc.)
    4. Southern (e.g. South Africa, Botswana etc.)
  2. Asia
    1. Central (e.g. Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, etc.)
    2. East (e.g. China, Japan, the Koreas)
    3. Russia and the Caucausus
    4. South (e.g. India, Sri Lanka, etc.)
    5. South-East (e.g. Vietnam, Laos, Indonesia etc.)
  3. Australia, New Zealand and Tasmania
  4. Caribbean
  5. Central America
  6. Europe
    1. Balkans (e.g. Romania, Croatia etc.)
    2. Eastern (e.g. Ukraine, Lithuania etc.)
    3. Scandinavia (e.g. Norway, Sweden etc.)
    4. Western (e.g. Spain, France etc.)
  7. Middle East
  8. North America
  9. Oceania
  10. South America
    1. Amazonian (e.g. Brazil, Guyana, etc.)
    2. Andean (e.g. Ecuador, Peru, Chile)
    3. Far South (e.g. Argentina,
  11. The British Isles

I decided to put The British Isles in a separate category rather than lumping it in with Europe. Morgan mentioned that English is the most published language on the planet and this is because of the former British Empire. For this reason, one of my British friends (the same one who helped me narrow down these regions) suggested the separate category and I agreed.

Thus, I have covered the geographic aspect of this plan. I admit that I may not be able to get books from all these regions, but I will still try. If I can and if I am able to read at least one book from each division, I will be able to cover a minimum of 22 books. Since my plan is to read 30 books this year, this leaves me with room to pile on extras in any region I choose.

Authors, Settings and Characters

The second problem I encountered while structuring this challenge revolved around the books themselves. I already knew where my books were coming from, but as I explored my potential booklist, I realized that it was very difficult to find authors that fit exclusively into these regions. Funnily enough, the reason for this problem was immigration.

Immigration has changed the literary landscape over the past 100 years and even more so recently. While looking back at my 2015-16 booklists, discovered something exciting: many of the authors I encountered fell into one or more of these 3 categories:

  1. Authors who live in one country, but have heritage/ancestry in another
  2. Authors who are one race/ethnicity, but write about another
  3. Authors who live in one country, but whose books are set in another.

Let me explain this phenomenon using  Roxane Gay, Yann Martel and Bill Bryson.

Gay was born in America but her family migrated from Haiti to the United States. In her book Bad Feminist, she wrote about her life as female, Haitian immigrant discovering herself in an American world. Do I categorize her as Caribbean or American?

In Martel’s case, he is Spanish-born Canadian and in his book Life of Pi, his main character was an Indian (as in the country) boy. His story’s setting spans three countries (India, Mexico and Canada) and an uncharted course through the Pacific Ocean. With all this to consider, should Martel’s book fall under a European according to his ancestry or should it fall into a South Asian one according to the main character’s ethnicity?

Lastly, there is Bill Bryson – who is a travel writer by trade. Bryson is an American but his books bounce from place to place depending on where he is writing about. So, should I say that his books are North American because of his American perspective, or should I classify them according to the setting of each of his books?

I hope you can see the conundrum here.

In the end, I decided to just accept all three of these factors as they are. If a book fit into any of the categories, I will just read it as it is. After all, I intend to enjoy my reading experience! It makes no sense making this challenge an analytical chore.  I will read the books as they come, regardless of who wrote it, who the main characters are and where the book is written. This will help to maintain the diversity of my reading.

The Final Reading Plan

After establishing the limitations of my challenge, the last two things that I did was to write out my booklist and start my reading journal.

I decided to go with an “open” booklist this year rather than one resembling the closed, rigid one that I had in 2016. Instead of narrowing my reading choices to 30 books and matching them to my regions, I have a long list of potential readings to choose from. As the year progresses and I discover more interesting books, I will simply add them to the list and choose from them as I go along. I have also included the origin or location of the author/book on the list so that it’s easy to flit from region to region without too much worry. So far, I have 75 books on my list and I am due to add several more soon. I will not be publishing this list, but I do have set up a page set up to track my progress.

reading-list
The First 5 Books of my 2017 booklist

Lastly, I have started a reading journal. This was one of my resolutions last year and I’m only getting around to it now. Instead of just reading passively and enjoying the story, I am also journaling about the books so that I can experience them on a deeper level. I will write about this later but so far, I am loving the experience.

In Closing

This year of reading promises to be more exciting than my last. I hope that by the end of this experience, I will have a much more inclusive and diverse global perspective. I know it will be a life changing experience and I hope that all of you can come along on this journey with me and enjoy the pleasures the world has to offer.


Reference:

Anderson, H. (2014, October 21). Why won’t English Speakers Read Books in Translation? Retrieved from BBC – Culture: http://bbc.in/1ulqz2b


I would like to give special thanks to David McLoughlin for helping sort out my global reading regions and for explaining the influence of the British Empire on modern literature.

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