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the Complete Review
the complete review - reading / publishing

Reading the World

(The World Between Two Covers)

Ann Morgan

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The World Between Two Covers

Title: Reading the World
Author: Ann Morgan
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2015
Length: 291 pages
Availability: The World Between Two Covers - US
Reading the World - UK
The World Between Two Covers - Canada
Reading the World - India
  • UK title: Reading the World
  • US title: The World Between Two Covers
  • UK subtitle: Confessions of a Literary Explorer
  • US subtitle: Reading the Globe
  • Inanity of publishers: limitless

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Our Assessment:

B : wide-ranging; fairly engaging

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 6/2/2015 Theo Lanse
The Guardian . 15/1/2015 Stuart Kelly
The Spectator A 28/2/2015 Daniel Hahn
The Telegraph . 6/2/2015 Ian Thomson

  From the Reviews:
  • "While Morganís research has a daunting range, the writing is charming, and, for all the to-ing and fro-ing, there is a simple message: reading is a social activity, and we ought to share books across boundaries." - Theo Lanse, Financial Times

  • "Reading the World itself is not a discussion of the individual books (...) rather, it is a study of the idea of what Goethe called Weltliteratur. (...) It is in the nature of such cute ideas that they fray almost immediately, and part of the charm of this work is in Morganís exasperation and frustrations at her self-imposed challenge. (...) It is a vast field but the breezy style, infectious enthusiasm and nicely pitched tone mean it is both diverting and illuminating. That one might take issue with some of the conclusions or presuppositions is in the nature of the beast." - Stuart Kelly, The Guardian

  • "The experience was recorded on her blog (...) and is now synthesised into this brilliant, unlikely book. (...) Watching Morganís prejudices being dismantled, her simplifications complicated, her openly admitted complacency and ignorance challenged, is all the more fascinating and salutary if we recognise their resemblances to our own." - Daniel Hahn, The Spectator

  • "Reading the World, an amalgam of literary travelogue and treatise, amplifies Morganís blog. Written in jolly, up-tempo prose, it amounts to a study of the art of reading, storytelling and literary internet trawling. Above all, the book discusses translation: why do some books translate better than others into alien cultures ? (...) Unfortunately, clichés cling like grime to Morganís prose" - Ian Thomson, The Telegraph

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       For 2012, Ann Morgan decided she wanted to read a book from every country in the world; she chronicled that adventure at her A year of reading the world-weblog and Reading the World: Confessions of a Literary Explorer -- now published in the US as The World Between Two Covers: Reading the Globe -- is a sort of 'what-I-learned-reading-the-world' companion volume, less focused on the individual titles than broader themes and questions raised by the undertaking itself. So she considers everything from the limited amount of foreign fiction available in English and in US/UK bookstores to publishing (including self-publishing) across the world to reader-expectations from and perceptions of foreign literature, the variety of economic and political situations in shaping local literature, and translation itself. And more.
       Morgan does write from a personal perspective, and her hook is a good one, beginning with the admission that when she scanned her bookshelves in 2011, "the proud record of more than twenty years of reading", she finds lots of "British and North American greats" but little from beyond these areas and practically nothing (Madame Bovary, a couple of volumes of Freud) in translation. Admirably seeking to expand her horizons, the idea of 'reading the world' came to her:

I would have to prescribe myself an intensive course of world literature and spend 2012 trying to read a book form every country in the world. I would set out to devour a book-length prose narrative -- written or translated into English -- from each state during those twelve months, aiming largely for contemporary novels, story collections or memoirs, but leaving the door open for extraordinary blasts from the past here and there.
       Whether the one-country/one-book approach is the best way to go about this is perhaps an open question, but it at least readily allows for structure and goal for the endeavor. Well, some structure: as Morgan notes, even determining what should count as a country is not an entirely clear question; she eventually settles on 196 -- including generally recognized but odd man out of the UN Taiwan, the Vatican, and Palestine -- plus one bonus non-state regional pick ("wild-card entry" Kurdistan, which beat out Catalonia for the honor).
       Selecting -- and in many cases simply finding -- titles also proved to be a difficult task. Morgan was helped by readers of her weblog, who offered suggestions -- and, in some cases, sent books, or even helped with translations -- though the results are predictably uneven. The full list of titles she read (bold) and other suggestions is at her weblog, and it is somewhat eclectic. A good number of the selections (many of which are also under review at the complete review) are reasonably clear picks -- obviously, it's hard to make a case for any single definitive nation-novel, but many of these are fine examples: if one has to pick just one recent novel from Finland, Arto Paasilinna's The Year of the Hare is a good and defensible choice; while one might prefer something written in Ukrainian representative for Ukraine (with both Oksana Zabuzhko and Yuri Andrukhovych the obvious choices), Andrey Kurkov's sublime Death and the Penguin is certainly a good choice, too. Elsewhere, the selections sometimes seem like a reach -- Anna Kim for Austria ?
       Small nations pose a particular problem -- there's not much Vatican-written lit out there -- and also leads to some odd and occasionally desperate selections. Grace Kelly: Princesse du Cinéma, edited by Richard and Danae Projetti, for Monaco is among the saddest, while Heinrich Harrer's Seven Years in Tibet is a rather odd choice for ... Liechtenstein (where, yes, he did settle, but there's little Liechtensteinian to him or, especially, that book).
       Morgan does pay good attention to translation, and it's nice to see some non-obvious choices for some of the countries where she could easily have chosen English-language books (instead, the UK is represented by a translated from the Welsh title, and India by a book (by Bhima-author M.T.Vasudevan Nair) translated from the Malayalam). Yet elsewhere she chooses titles not written in locally dominant languages; among the oddities is that titles translated from the German not only cover the obvious candidates but also Azerbaijan (Kurban Said's Ali and Nino), Bosnia and Herzegovina (Saša Stanišić), Mongolia (Galsan Tschinag), and Syria (Rafik Schami); there's a case to be made for each of these -- absolutely, Damascus Nights is a great Syria-novel (albeit of the Syria from over half a century ago ...) -- but it's a bit disappointing that selections from closer to home (in locale, language, and time) were overlooked. Similarly, there are a few odd books out, time-wise -- most of the stuff is reasonably contemporary (anything from the last half century should probably count as such, given the often ridiculous translation time delays), but Ali and Nino is from 1937, the Guatemalan choice, Miguel Ángel Asturias' The President, from 1947, and the Irish selection ... from 1922 (James Joyce's Ulysses).
       Morgan doesn't even discuss all her selections in Reading the World -- that's what the weblog was and is for, after all, where all the titles are covered more closely -- but she uses many of them in her various examples and discussions. (The book's biggest flaw, however, and a source of considerable frustration, is that there is no index: given how many books, authors, and people Morgan does discuss and mention, an index would have been invaluable (especially since, unlike her weblog, the hardcover is not readily 'searchable' ...). ) The examples are generally interesting, from her explanations about the two books she admits were actually bad to the difficulties of finding anything from some of the world's more distant reaches, such as North Korea.
       In covering all the different subjects that her reading adventure led her to -- bookselling, publishing, censorship, reader- (and writer-)expectations and the danger of literary homogenization, English-language dominance abroad -- she meanders widely. There is indeed a meandering feel throughout, especially as she describes interaction with various people who are helpful in her quest, from the many responding via her weblog to the publisher of much-missed Aflame (a handful of their titles reviewed here), to familiar voices from the blogosphere, the translation community, and publishing -- and, of course, authors themselves. Occasionally, Morgan's approach has an information-dump feel (breathless and good-student-like (over-)eager, even, at some points -- she stuffs a lot in), and without full citations -- there are no (end)notes either, just a Select Bibliography -- this can feel more like magazine-journalism than scholarly exposition. Indeed, Morgan's book sits a bit uneasily between casual and serious-documentary, her personal approach reasonably winning but sometimes getting overwhelmed by the statistics, information, and observations she heaps on. Her occasionally jarring comparisons, connections, and conclusions (and she pulls a lot out of her hat) also give a bit of the well-read-but-still-amateur-in-the-field feel to the whole thing, too
       If the presentation is not ideal, Morgan admirably brings up and discusses many of the relevant issues regarding world literature and the movement of books (and culture) across borders and languages. As such, it's a decent introductory text for anyone interested in international literature -- with the online bonus-material a definite nice complement to the text.

       Note: as several reviewers have pointed out, Morgan's writing does tend a bit towards the cliché -- hard to avoid, given the subject matter and approach, and something she is aware of too, as she even reflects on this very issue at one point. Rather more annoying are some of the slips: it's not "Open Letter Press", for example, and while you can refer to him as 'Borges' or 'Jorge Luis Borges' you would never refer to him (as Morgan does) as: "Luis Borges".

- M.A.Orthofer, 26 June 2015

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Reading the World: Reviews: Ann Morgan: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Ann Morgan is a British author.

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