I love undertaking reading projects, such as Ann Morgan does as the basis for Reading the World: Confessions of a Literary Explorer. I have never, however, read only translated literature throughout the course of a year, as Morgan does. She decided, when the Olympics came to London in 2012, that she would read one work published in every country in the world during the course of the year, and blog about them. This sounds like an easier project than she found it, on the face of it; firstly, the difficulty of deciding how many countries are in the world came about (the numbers differ wildly dependent on who is being asked), and is discussed in depth in the first chapter, before she discusses the trouble which she sometimes had in getting her hands on a single book from some of the countries.
I had read several mixed reviews about Reading the World before I began to read, and the doubt which some readers have had in Morgan’s approach to her book are, I feel, justified. I thought that Reading the World would be like Nina Sankovitch’s wonderful account of a yearly reading journey, Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, with a lot of focus upon the books chosen, the reasons for them, and a series of personal thoughts which follow the reading. Instead, Morgan presents what feels like a series of loosely connected essays, talking at length about the ways in which we define world literature, and addressing things like cultural identity and heritage, and the kinds of books which tend to be translated into English.
The majority of the books which Morgan read during 2012 are not even mentioned in the body of the text; rather, they have been fashioned into a list at the back of the book, which is ordered alphabetically by country. These entries do not always include the translator, and feel a little inconsistent as a result.
Reading the World is undoubtedly an intelligent book, but it is not one which I would recommend to the general reader. For the most part, Morgan’s prose is fine, but in several places it came across as clunky, repetitive, and even a little patronising. There is an academic, or perhaps just a highbrow, feel to it, which does not make it an easy tome to dip in and out of at will, like many other books about books tend to be; it errs toward the heavy-going in places.
It isn’t that Reading the World is an uninteresting book; it is simply not at all what I was expecting. I would go as far to say that it is more involved with the translation and publishing processes, than with reading the end results. I did read Reading the World through to its conclusion, but did not find it a very engaging book. All in all, the ideas which went toward the book were far better than its execution, which seems a great shame. I have, perhaps fittingly, left my copy in one of those sweet little free libraries in France.