The Austin Review stumbled by chance onto British writer Ann Morgan’s internationally celebrated blog, A Year of Reading the World, in which she documents her experience reading one book from every United Nations-recognized country within a year. Her blog rose to such success that she is currently at work on a book based on her experience, expected to be out in 2015 and published by Harvill Secker. Ann holds an M.A. in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia, an M.A. in English Literature from Cambridge University, and a postgraduate diploma in Journalism from the London School of Journalism. Blown away by her story, we reached out to her for an interview, to which she kindly agreed.
The Austin Review: When did you first begin to blog?
Ann Morgan: I started in 2011 with a blog called A Year of Reading Women where I was reading only women writers for a year.
TAR: How did this lead to your blog, A Year of Reading the World?
AM: It was a chance comment from a blogger in the U.S. that made me think about what world literature I read. I always thought of myself as a very cultured person, but when I looked at my bookshelves I realized that there seemed to just be American and British writers on there. I decided that I would spend a year exploring world literature by trying to read a book from every country in the world.
TAR: How many books did you read in that year?
AM: I did 196 countries—the UN-recognized countries, plus Taiwan, and I did one extra book, which was from a territory not represented on the UN list. I called for nominations, and I ended up doing a book from Kurdistan for my 197th book.
TAR: How were you able to keep such a rigorous reading schedule?
AM: I was quite strict with myself. I worked out that I probably had to read one book every two days and then one book in one day once a week. I had to read 100 or 150 pages a day, which I reckoned was about three hours of reading. I was commuting to work an hour each way, so that was two hours, and then I had to find an extra hour in the day, sometimes in the evening or sometimes on my lunch break.
TAR: What were some of your favorite books?
AM: It’s a really hard question because there are so many amazing books. And also some of my favorites are favorites not because they’re amazing books particularly but because of the way I found them. It wasn’t just me on my own reading books—it was people suggesting books and helping me find them and sometimes even translating books for me. So I don’t know, I guess in terms of a great read, one of my favorites would be my Mongolian book, The Blue Sky by Galsan Tschinag. It was a story of a shepherd boy in the Altai Mountains. And it’s a really alien, different world. It’s a place where children smoke pipes and people use urine to wash out their eyes and stuff we would find really quite uncomfortable and hard to get our heads around, but the writing is so great that it takes you into that world and makes you feel as though you are sitting in the yurt with the family listening to their story.
TAR: How important was the international literary community for this project?
AM: It was crazy, really. When I launched the blog, I started it because I realized I didn’t read much world literature. I didn’t know where to start. I didn’t know what a good book to read from Mongolia was, so I thought the only way to find out was to ask the world’s readers. I started the blog about two months before the start of the year with a short appeal asking for help. I had no idea what sort of response I’d get. I thought maybe no one would pay attention and I wouldn’t hear anything back and I’d be on my own, but amazingly people started sharing it and tweeting it and passing it on. First it was friends, and then it was friends of friends, and pretty soon it was people who I had no idea how they’d heard about it. About four days after I launched the blog I got a message from a woman named Rafidah, in Kuala Lumpur, and she said that she loved the sound of the project. She wanted to help by choosing me a book from Malaysia and posting it to me. I was really excited, but then as soon as I said “Yay, please do it!” I thought, oh my God, I really have to do this project now. There is someone six thousand miles away going to a bookshop to buy a book for me, a person I’ve never met. Someone has invested all that trust, so I have to make sure that I do it.
TAR: That’s such an incredible part of the story.
AM: Readers are very generous. The great thing about stories is that they bring people together across all cultural boundaries. People get really excited if you’re interested in their culture and their story.
TAR: Was it challenging to find books from every country translated into English?
AM: One of the things that surprised me during the project was how difficult it is to find work in translation from some countries where they actually have quite widely spoken official languages. I was fully prepared that it might be difficult to find translated languages from say, Brunei, where they speak a very rare language, but when it came to countries in Africa where they speak French and Portuguese, I thought surely it would be easy to find something. But actually, most French and Portuguese speaking African countries have very little literature in English translation. There are some amazing books out there that haven’t made it into English. I was very lucky to read a Mozambican book that was actually voted one of Africa’s top one hundred books called Ualalapi by Ungulani Ba Ka. It’s an amazing book with this towering, tragic hero—he’s a bit like a King Lear sort of figure and really engaging. I only got to read it because I happened to meet someone who’d done an unpublished translation of it. I got to read the manuscript, but actually it doesn’t exist in English in a form you can buy.
TAR: I understand your blog is now turning into a book?
AM: That’s right. It’s not going to be a straight-taking-things-from-the-blog. The book is going to be a bigger thing about reading the world and looking at some of the bigger ideas: what does reading mean, what do we do when we tell stories, why do we do it, and what is the internet doing to change what we think about literature? So it’s using my experience with the blog as a jumping off point. I’m still working on how it’s going to work at the moment. It’s coming out in 2015.
TAR: Do you have any other writing projects underway?
AM: I’m a freelance writer so I do all sorts of things. I write a lot about education, the arts, and more and more about books and reading. I’m working on a novel as well. It’s in the early stages, but essentially it’s about identical twins. That’s all I can say at the moment.
TAR: And then you also have a new blog starting up, If Women Ruled.
AM: I have to confess at the moment I’m on a slight break because I’m busy with the book, and I’ve also just got married.
AM: It’s been a busy time [laughing]. I’m planning to get back into that probably early this year. But I’m still looking for people to suggest ideas. I’m looking for books, also films, and suggestions of groups of women who manage their own affairs and shut themselves off from society, to see what we can learn. When I was doing my Year of Reading Women, I read quite a few feminist works that seemed to suggest that the society that we live in today, even with the best will in the world, can never actually be truly equal to men and women because all the structures we live with have been created from the ground up by and for men. So even if both genders are keen to address the balance, it’s very, very difficult to get a completely level playing field. And so that got me thinking: okay what if women had created society, what if women had been in charge, how would it have ended up differently, how would it be better, how might it be worse, what problems would it have, what challenges, and what could we learn from trying to imagine how the world might have worked in that way? What would the structure of our day be like? What would a year be like? What expectations would we have for our lives?
Obviously it’s impossible to sweep away everything we’ve grown up with and we’re used to, but as far as possible I’m trying to get behind the expected things we live with by reading about imagined worlds that are run by women and real women’s groups who have actually tried to create their own societies. For example, there are women in tribes in Kenya who have created their own societies and live apart from male societies. I’m hoping to actually go spend some time with these groups as well.
TAR: What other female societies have you found?
AM: There are lots of amazing imagined societies. Things like Herland, a great early twentieth century book by American writer Charlotte Perkins Gillman. It’s about this imaginary Amazonian kingdom where women have been shut off by the rest of the world by a volcano explosion and have managed their own affairs. There are also some interesting matriarchal societies in China and in some of the Pacific Island nations.
TAR: I must ask, since you are so well-read in such a diverse selection, how would you say your reading has informed your writing?
AM: I think that you learn so much by seeing how other writers have expressed things and tackled different challenges in their writing. It opens your mind to different ways of telling stories, particularly when you read widely. When you read books from different cultures, it makes you quite conscious of trends or fashions. Sometimes in a positive way but also how sometimes things can be a bit narrow or could be refreshed a bit more. I am more aware as a writer, more conscious of how I use words and the possibilities that are open.