I was already working my way through two reading challenges, both of which had long lists of books. But when I looked at the titles they struck me as predominantly predictable choices from the canon of Western literature. True the Booker prize winner list contained a smattering of authors from Commonwealth countries but they were in the minority. Nothing from Eastern Europe or Southern Asia. Little from the African continent and zero from Latin America. Surely these parts of the world had authors who would be worth exploring?
And so my ‘World in Literature ‘ challenge was born. It wasn’t fleshed out in any detail beyond a few random thoughts on the back of a beer mat in the pub one Friday evening (ok I admit this exercise was aided by a glass of gin and tonic.) Tackling the world seemed like an impossibly momentous challenge though so I decided to start small and just read novels from countries crossed by the Equatorial line and the Prime Meridian.
It sounded so straight forward at the time. Trouble was I never really gave any thought to how I would track down these authors and their novels. Somehow I just assumed I could do a bit of web surfing and blog browsing and hey presto I’d get the list together in no time and then could just start reading.
If only it were that easy.
But seven months in and I have to admit my progress has been more like a tortoise than the hare. Of the 13 countries along the Equator and the 8 along the Prime Meridian (making a total of 21), I have read just six so far.
What’s so difficult about reading 21 novels you might wonder?
Well several things.
First of all it’s taken far more time than I expected to research which authors and books to read. I’ve trawled endless web sites in my quest but many of them pay scant attention to writers from the countries I have on my radar. The list of Nobel Prize for Literature winners seemed promising but actually is heavily dominated by European writers while Granta has a good listing from Latin America but nothing from Africa or Asia beyond Pakistan. Various ‘Top 100 Novels’ lists proved disappointing also. Ordinary, individual bloggers were much more helpful than the official sources. Blogs like Words and Peace which has a Read the World in 52 novels challenge or the list developed by A Year of Reading the World have been superb resources along with the Reading Globally group at LibraryThing. Thanks to them I am slowly but surely creating my own list.
I’ve been lucky with some countries since I was able to take advantage of the fact I work for a multinational company to get recommendations for authors from Brazil and the Congo . Colleagues are getting used to me interrogating them about writers from their countries but I’ve also noticed how pleased they are that someone is taking an interest in their culture. But even with a sizeable employee base, I’ve drawn a blank on parts of Africa. And as for the smallest country of all in my list — Sao Tome and Principe — I’m coming to the conclusion that I’ll never find anything from there.
Even when I do find an author it’s proven difficult to buy some of their works in English at an affordable price. One I was recommended from France was retailing at $22 while another from Brazil could be mine at the eye watering price of $99 (and that was only for a second hand paperback copy).
I know this sounds like a rant. But honestly these frustrations are partly my fault. I was the one who made it difficult. The easiest option would have been to find books set in the countries of interest but I chose the more difficult path of insisting that I would read only indigenous authors.
I’m not giving up however. Though I haven’t read many authors yet, they have included some intriguing and thought provoking novels. So I am determined to continue this voyage of literary discovery. One day I might even get to read something from Sao Tome.