In the fall of 2012, Ann Morgan was wrestling with a problem few of us can identify with. No matter how hard she tried, she simply could not find a book to read in English from the tiny African nation of Sao Tome and Principe. At a loss, she appealed for help on Facebook and Twitter, only to be deluged with offers from around the world to translate whatever work she chose from the Portuguese-speaking island. A small army of volunteers in Europe and the United States ultimately came to her rescue, translating chunks of Olinda Beja's 140-page The Shepherd's House into English.
The crowdsourcing experiment was just one memorable moment in Morgan's quest to read one book from every country in the world in one year—a goal she accomplished just around this time last year, as New Year's Day approached. The London-based freelance writer defined her universe of countries as "all UN-recognised countries plus Palestine and Taiwan," and added one additional territory—Kurdistan—based on a vote by readers of the blog she maintained for the project. That meant reading a grand total of 197 books, at a pace of four books per week and a cost of several thousand British pounds. (While Morgan bought many of the books, reading some on her Kindle and others in print, she obtained others by more unconventional means; the first book she read, from South Sudan, was written specially for her blog.)
"I only read American and British writers, and occasionally an Indian or South African or Australian writer. I never ever read books that were translated from other languages," Morgan, who can read books in French and German "very slowly with a very big dictionary," told me. "And when I thought about that it seemed like a weird thing: Why would you limit yourself in that way?" Living in a country where only 3 percent of books published each year are translations, Morgan set out to answer one question in particular: "Can a person in London access all of world literature?"
With the holidays upon us, I reached out to Morgan to find out which books from the project she enjoyed most. After all, who better to get book recommendations from than someone who has hunted down good literature in every corner of the world? Here are her top four books:
The Blue Sky, Galsan Tschinag (Mongolia): "It's about a shepherd boy growing up in the Altai Mountains," Morgan says. "And he's part of a nomadic community who herd animals to survive. It's a very weird and different world to anything that people used to Western culture will have encountered before. It's a place where children smoke pipes and people use urine to wash out their eyes if their eyes are sore. But the thing that's really interesting about it is that Tschinag is such a great writer that he really takes you inside the world and makes you feel as though you're connected to it. It's like you're sitting in the yurt with the family listening to their stories, and you forget that this is really not your world.... You recognize so many things in the childhood of this boy that you would have experienced as a child as well even though he comes from such a different community. And that's incredibly powerful."
The Wandering Falcon, Jamil Ahmad (Pakistan): "It's set during a time when the borders of Pakistan and the other nations around it were being fixed by the British and other controlling powers in the region," Morgan says. "And nomadic communities that had traveled back and forth across mountain ranges grazing their animals and camping in different places according to the time of year suddenly found that they couldn't move freely anymore, because there were these boundaries that were there that had never existed before. What was interesting about this novel as well was that it was written 30 years before it was published. The writer didn't have much faith in it and it didn't get much interest, so he locked it up in a chest in his house and forgot about it. His wife kept the key to the chest, and 30 years after he finished it she persuaded him to get it out again and try to publish it."
An African in Greenland, Tete-Michel Kpomassie (Togo): "It's a memoir, an autobiography really, and it tells the story of Tete-Michel, who grew up as one of a huge number of children to his father, who had eight wives and was a tribal elder in a rural part of Togo," Morgan says. "Tete-Michel had a run-in with a python when he was trying to collect coconuts one day in the forest and fell to the ground and had a fit. And it was decided that the way he was going to get around his illness was to spend a month in the jungle with the 'python cult,' these women who lived with pythons. The trouble was that he was actually scared of snakes and he didn't want to do that. And so just before he was due to be sent to the forest he discovered a book in the evangelical book shop in his local town about Greenland. And he said, 'Not only does this amazing land have no snakes but it has no trees in which they might hide.' So he decided he was going to go to Greenland and ran away from his family at the age of 16, worked his way up through Africa, learning languages as he went, and managed to get a boat to Europe and to Greenland, where he lived with Inuits for two years.... It's an incredibly funny and really absorbing read."
Smile as They Bow, Nu Nu Yi (Myanmar): "It's set at a festival in Burma as seen through the eyes of this spirit medium," Morgan says. "He dresses as a woman to perform these spirit dances. He's in a homosexual relationship and homosexuality is illegal in Burma.... It's a very sad but also very funny and shocking and irreverent book. He's partly a con artist but he also takes huge amounts of inspiration from what he does as well. It's a very interesting insight into a totally different world. And the festival is an incredible, flamboyant excess of color and life, and all sorts of people coming for all sorts of reasons, and you feel like you're caught up in the crowd."
And hey, if you're already feeling overwhelmed with the reading you've lined up for the holidays, keep in mind that the task before you could be even more staggering. Just take a look at how Morgan's bookshelf filled up during her "year of reading the world."