I am an artist/marine biologist (I know, such a cliché) and aspiring novelist, and an insatiable consumer of books. I’ve just relocated to San Francisco after eight years living in Ireland and England.
About the Blog
I wanted to read a book from every country in the world. But, when I started to make my list, I found it impossible to limit myself to just one, and likewise impossible to limit myself just to UN-recognized independent countries. So now there are a lot of books! From a lot of places, some of which are countries, some of which are semi-autonomous regions, and some of which are colonies or protectorates that nevertheless have their own distinct culture and literature! Here’s the whole list (2,108 books from 217 countries at last count) if you want to look at it. By my calculations it will take me 40 years to get through it all (if I read nothing else in that time), so bear with me.
If you want to learn more about my motivations and goals for this project, have a look at my first post, about moving back to America, settling down, and traveling vicariously.
About the List
It started with flipping through The Lonely Planet Travel Book, all the countries of the world in glossy color and arranged in alphabetical order, with its startling cultural juxtapositions–Cambodia nestled next to Cameroon, Greenland on the heels of Greece. The Lonely Planet doesn’t draw the line at UN member states, so neither did I; after all, French Polynesia is technically part of France, but its literature is surely different and worth exploring. Scotland and Wales are both in the UK, but they consider themselves separate countries and their literary traditions, though linked, are distinct. I added a few extras that weren’t on the Lonely Planet’s list–Abkhazia comes to mind–and I’m open to further suggestions.
I wasn’t necessarily concerned with getting a definitive list of The Greatest Works from each distinct region. Such a list would be subjective anyway, and compiling it in a short time would be nearly impossible. Plus, I’m not doing this to try to create a canonical list of world literature–I’m doing it so I can learn something about places I might never get a chance to travel to, and so that I can find great books that I might never otherwise have read. So I just wanted to put together a broad survey, including whatever classics of the region I could find, that might give me an insight onto a given culture, or at least provide me with some entertaining reading material that I wouldn’t find elsewhere. I used Wikipedia to find lists of authors or summaries of national literatures. I searched for top-ten, top-twenty and top-100 lists on Google and goodreads. I queried my friends on Facebook to find out what they read in school growing up. I stole suggestions from A Year of Reading the World.
I tried wherever possible to choose authors who are native to the region in question, or else who moved there during childhood. If an author moved away from their home country in adulthood I still consider them to be from the country where they were born; after all, I moved away from America eight years ago but I’m still American. I still think and write like an American, and any book I produce would, I think, be classified as American literature. There are some exceptions to my native rule–sometimes the oral poetry or folk traditions of a non-literate culture have been transcribed by foreign anthropologists, and at times these are the only sources for reading these tales. And there are some places where, try as I might, I was unable to find any accessible literature by a native author. Tuvalu is one such instance; I had to settle in this case, for a novel by an Englishman who lived there for two years, and a book of folk songs collected by a German anthropologist. Less than ideal, but better than nothing.
One thing to note is that books I’ve already read are not on the list. That’s why a lot of classics of English and American literature are conspicuously absent: my education and my previous leisure reading have been very anglophone biased. Some French classics are missing as well; I studied french in high school and college and majored in Medieval Studies with a focus on French and English literature, so I knocked some of those out then.
I ended up with a list of 2,108 books–hence the name of the blog–though that number is in frequent flux. If you’re interested, you can see the whole list here. At my current rate of reading it will take me just over forty years to read them all, so I think I’ll probably have to skip a few.
With all these caveats in mind, if you know of any great books that aren’t on this list, and you want to recommend them, let me know in the comments!