Ever since I followed Ann Morgan’s “year of reading the world” in 2012, I’ve wanted to take on a similar challenge myself. I say “similar” because doing exactly what Ann did – reading a book from every single country – would take me around four years at my usual rate, with no space to read anything else. I’m just not cut out for that kind of commitment.
For some reason, it took me nine years to think of the idea of picking a country for every letter of the alphabet, so I’d only have to commit to reading 26 books. Well, 24 technically, since in English there are no countries starting with X (understandable) or W (more surprising, though I suppose Wakanda doesn’t count). I’m sure other people have done similar challenges, but I haven’t looked any up as I wanted to do it my way and avoid being too influenced by the choices of other readers.
There were a few things I took into consideration when picking countries and books, which I’ll explain for anyone who might be interested in a similar challenge. (And also because it’s March 2021, so what else is there to do?)
Nothing but novels
These days, I don’t read much fiction. Perhaps it’s my anxiety around being productive, perhaps it’s just that non-fiction is easier to digest. Nevertheless, when I do read fiction, I love it! Even when it’s bad! (Well, depends how bad, I suppose…) I decided to focus this challenge specifically on novels to get me out of my comfort zone and give me a chance to read narratives from all over the world.
As I picked countries, I used amCharts to create the following map and track my progress.
As well as reminding me about basic geography, it helped me ensure I was working towards a decent geographical spread.
Using data on the population share of each continent, I calculated out how many books I should read from each if I were to follow these proportions. I didn’t follow this exactly, but it gave me another tool to ensure I was choosing a suitably representative list.
of books / 24
of books / 24
This was secondary to other factors, but I also wanted to read a good proportion of female authors. My current list is 12 women and 12 men, which is pretty much bang on. There are some countries where I could swap a male author for a female author relatively easily, but actually I’m quite keen to read those particular books, so I’m happy to make up for it outside of the challenge.
I didn’t want this challenge to put too big a dent in my bank balance, so I started every search by checking Libby and BorrowBox, both of which I have access to via my local library. (Here’s a tip: if you don’t find anything in the library when searching for the country, try searching for its capital city!) My current list should only require me to buy three books, with three I already own, one from the Internet Archive, and seventeen from the library. Where I struggled to find books for certain countries, I used Ann Morgan’s list, country-specific Goodreads lists and lots of good old-fashioned Googling.
Novelty (within reason)
The purpose of this challenge is to get me out of my comfort zone and experience new perspectives, so I have tried to pick countries whose literature I haven’t read before. There are some cases where I’ve not done this, but have instead sought new perspectives from within those countries. At the same time, there are some countries whose novels are not easy to get hold of in translation, and some novels I just really wanted to read. I think I’ve achieved a good balance between variety and feasibility.
As I was looking books up in my library apps, as soon as I came across something at least vaguely interesting, I added it to my list. I have a bad habit of wanting to optimise things to the extent that I’ll avoid doing something if it’s not going to be perfect – in this scenario, if there’s a chance of me not enjoying the book. I hope this is another aspect of my comfort zone that I can work on letting go of through this challenge.
What does it mean to be “from” somewhere?
This is a tricky one, and this short paragraph obviously will not do justice to the concepts of origin and identity. For the purposes of this challenge, I chose authors who had lived a significant portion of their lives in the country (i.e. at least up to their teen years), even if they subsequently emigrated. I also prioritised authors of colour, especially those from indigenous groups.
This challenge consists of 24 books, which means there are over 170 countries not covered by my list. When I look at my map I feel a bit anxious about all the gaps and omissions, but I’m trying to remind myself that this just because I didn’t pick a country, doesn’t mean I’ll never read a book from there. The world is a big place and everyone’s got to start somewhere.
The countries whose novels I’ll be reading
After all that, I have a list of novels to read corresponding to the following countries (those with asterisks are the only countries starting with their respective letters, according to this list):
- Papua New Guinea
- Sri Lanka
I’m not going to share the list of books right now as they might change, and because I’m open to any suggestions. I’ll try to review all the books here, but even if I don’t manage that I’ll try to provide an update at some point. I’m giving myself until the end of 2021 to complete the challenge, so I have a deadline to motivate me while still having space to read other things.
I suppose I’d better get on with the reading part now…