Ann Morgan’s The World Between Two Covers: Reading the Globe

In conjunction with a roundup of ten key fiction-in-translation titles I will feature in LJ 6/1/15, I was able to interview Ann Morgan, author of this month’s The World Between Two Covers: Reading the Globe (Liveright: Norton). Morgan’s book highlights both the pleasure of reading beyond our own language (from Umberto Eco’s Numero Zero in Picks to Andrus Kivirähk’s The Man Who Spoke Snakish in Fiction Previews) and what we can learn from books and publishing from other lands.

Eager to visit other cultures worldwide? Books afford everyone that opportunity, but not enough Anglophone readers take it, as evidenced by the number of translated works published Ann Morgan (c) Steve Lennon_300dpiannually in the United States, for instance—a mere three percent of the total. British journalist Ann Morgan was so appalled by her scant knowledge of world literature that she bravely decided to take a year to read one book from each of the world’s 196 nations—and to blog about what she read. A Year of Reading Around the World ­ led to the just-published The World Between Two Covers: Reading the Globe (Liveright: Norton; LJ 4/1/15), which Morgan hopes will “encourage people to look further” in their reading. Serving less as blueprint than inspiration, it’s self-help for the intimidated.

English speakers sometimes resist works in translation from smugness but mostly, said Morgan in a phone interview with LJ, because “the people talking about world literature are those who already do it. People like me who haven’t had that broad experience fear that they just won’t understand.” Ditching her own fears, Morgan opted to read openly, inevitably falling back on prize lists and recommendations from experts but putting her real faith in passionate readers around the globe willing to share their suggestions. “There are an increasing number of personal projects like mine,” she explains, “and a degree more openness than ten years ago, perhaps because of the Internet.”

Even as it connects readers, the Internet has greatly facilitated publishing worldwide. Finding something to read was never a problem, explains Morgan, as “there’s so much being published because publishing works differently in different parts of the world, with self-publishing quite normal.” Online access has allowed writers to circumvent financial and logistical difficulties and even censorship (though Morgan quickly clarifies that “online censorship is an increasing issue”), while authors from Gambia to Kuwait have hopped on Twitter or Facebook to build audiences and seek advice. In the Caribbean, says Morgan, where “it’s not sustainable to be a publisher,…there’s enthusiasm about the Internet and a very good initiative to encourage local writers.”

Though ardent recommendations brought Morgan books, quality wasn’t always guaranteed; inevitably, she “caught a few frogs.” The bad books, though, were those copycatting commercial blockbusters from the West instead of relying on traditional forms or bringing “something new and different to Western genres.” More important, Morgan came to realize that “world literatures show us what the future of writing might be,” and not only in their adoption of Western forms and technology. With its fluid narrative and helpful use of images and stage directions, oral storytelling still dominates in many parts of the world, and its ethos has flowed easily into print. The results are sort of like those interactive and crowdsourced narratives Westerns writers are just experimenting with now.

For Morgan, taking a year to research, read, and blog about one book from each of the world’s countries meant covering four books a week—a real challenge because she was freelancing five days a week at the Guardian for the first seven months of her project. (She also read something from Kurdistan; figuring out what actually constituted a nation turned out to be her first big challenge.) It all added up to six hours of work a day, managing three books in two days each and a shorter one the next day. She quickly learned that while her reading ranged widely stories everywhere are a way to connect. And in the end she got something even better: not just a blog or a book but “a network of readers and writers around the planet.”

Share
Barbara Hoffert About Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (bhoffert@mediasourceinc.com, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Prepub Alert; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president, treasurer, and awards chair of the National Book Critics Circle.