world literature

Curse of the bright idea


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.

Photo credit:  a n i. Y. via photopin cc via Flickr


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

17 thoughts on “Curse of the bright idea

  • It’s a shame that it’s so hard but I can’t say I’m surprised. We have a French member of our book club who picked a French classic for our September read. It’s apparently highly lauded in France but sadly we’ve found that the one translation into English is out of print so we’ve all been trying hard to track it down secondhand. We may all have to share the same copy!

    I’ll be really interested to see what books you pick out for this challenge. I’ve started reading eastern European books this year (which there are a few small publishers specialising in translating into English) but I am definitely short on African reads.

  • stupid me, I didn’t even notice you did mention that site and even me, thanks! good luck

    • In a sense I’m following in your 52 countries wake but am taking just some baby steps to begin with. The Sao Tome book she found I think was one that some people translated especially for her.

  • What a challenge! Have you looked at Europa editions? I know they publish international authors although I don’t know how far they extend.

    • thanks for the info on the Europa editions. I just spent a very pleasant hour looking at their catalogue. It’s mainly European authors as you might guess from the company name but they did have a few people from Latin America and Africa that look very interesting.

  • Stefanie has made the point I was going to, namely the fact that so little world literature is translated into English. Presumably this is because the publishers don’t think it would sell which is very disheartening. Have you come across the magazine World Literature Today? That might offer some ideas.

    • I haven’t come across that magazine but will go hunting for it now. Thanks for the tip off and for – once again – coming up with a new lead.

      As for the dearth of literature in translation, it probably does come down to the question of economics. If a publisher can rake it in by with popular authors whose books are guaranteed to sell in the 000,000s, then why invest in something that might only sell in the 00s.

  • It’s a good challenge I think, too bad the challenge has gone beyond the actual reading. In the US books in translation are a very small part of the book market which is very sad really. Have you ever taken a look at Three Percent‘s website? It’s called three percent because that is about the percentage of books in translation published in the US. It is focused on US availability but it might be a useful place to find authors and titles that you might also be able to get where you are.

    • What a great resource that site is Stefanie. I didn’t know about it but have now signed up to their podcast. They have a good article on Brazilian literature which mentions the book that I chose for that country – Dom Casmurro by an author who has the longest name I have yet to find: joaquim maria machado de assis.

      • Glad the site is useful. I’ve not read machado de assis but I have heard lots of good things and he is on my list. Have you read Clarice Lispector? She’s Brazilian and absolutely brilliant. Her book Hour of the Star is breathtaking. She often gets compared to Woolf and Joyce.

        • She is on my list for when I get the chance to cycle back around the countries because I’ve heard good things too. I think there is a new translation of one of her books coming out shortly

  • Karen, our reading journeys are amazingly similar. I had a similar challenge going for a while, about the same time I started my Booker challenge. I could really relate to your post, especially the challenge of finding indigenous authors. This was both fun and frustrating! LT’s Reading Globally group was a great source of inspiration and I’m glad to see you’ve found others too. Good luck!

    • I will happily stand on the shoulders of giants, Laura (was it Thomas Edison who said that? I always forget). You’re right about the fun part though which now I re-read my post, I realise I never mentioned. So the fun part for me is making connections with people who are likewise trying to go beyond the norm and also discovering new writers.

  • I love your challenge. So unique. Lots of people read around the world, but you are following specific lines of latitude and longitude. Impressive. Good luck.

    • Thanks for the boost to my confidence Tanya. I must admit there are times when I get frustrated. But then I come across an author whose work is just eye opening. Which makes it all worth while


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