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There are exactly 12 hours until the Rest of the World poll closes and your votes decide the penultimate book of the year. There’s been some passionate campaigning and polling over the past week, but it’s still possible for any one of the contenders to seize the crown.

So what’ll it be? A Kurdish memoir, a Basque tale, a Faroese fishing novel, a Bermudian boxing bout, a Native American prize-winner or a Catalonian short story collection?

Read the list and vote in the poll below to have your say – and if you really want your favourite to win, why not tell your friends to vote too? This is getting exciting…

Shortlist

  • Basque Country Bernardo Atxaga Seven Houses in France – a historical novel (first published in 2009) about a French army captain who sets out to make his fortune in the jungles of Congo
  • Bermuda Brian Burland The Sailor and the Fox – a 1973 novel about the island’s first ever mixed-race prizefight by one of Bermuda’s most notable and controversial writers
  • Catalonia Jaume Cabré Winter Journey – a collection of interlinked short stories (first published in 2001) based on the structure of a Schubert song cycle
  • Faroe Islands Heðin Brú The Old Man and His Sons – a novel depicting the transformation of the fishing industry, voted ‘Book of the 20th Century’ by the Faroese
  • Kurdistan Jalal Barzanji The Man in Blue Pyjamas – a literary memoir by a journalist imprisoned and tortured under Saddam Hussein’s regime
  • Native America Louise Erdrich The Round House – a novel about racial injustice, which won the US National Book Award in November 2012

Poll closes at 23.59 tonight (UK time)

Picture courtesy of the_sprouts.

Rest of the World: vote now!

November 26, 2012

There are just four days left for you to have your say about which book I should read from the rest of the world (territories and peoples not represented on my main list).

Taking part is easy: just check out the shortlist below (drawn up from your nominations) and vote for the title that tickles your fancy in the poll. I’ll read the book with most votes for my penultimate post of the year. Can’t wait to see what you’ll choose…

Shortlist

  • Basque Country Bernardo Atxaga Seven Houses in France – a historical novel (first published in 2009) about a French army captain who sets out to make his fortune in the jungles of Congo
  • Bermuda Brian Burland The Sailor and the Fox – a 1973 novel about the island’s first ever mixed-race prizefight by one of Bermuda’s most notable and controversial writers
  • Catalonia Jaume Cabré Winter Journey – a collection of interlinked short stories (first published in 2001) based on the structure of a Schubert song cycle
  • Faroe Islands Heðin Brú The Old Man and His Sons – a novel depicting the transformation of the fishing industry, voted ‘Book of the 20th Century’ by the Faroese
  • Kurdistan Jalal Barzanji The Man in Blue Pyjamas – a literary memoir by a journalist imprisoned and tortured under Saddam Hussein’s regime
  • Native America Louise Erdrich The Round House – a novel about racial injustice, which won the US National Book Award in November 2012

Poll closes at 23.59 on Friday 30 November (UK time).

Picture courtesy of the_sprouts.

HALFWAY APPEAL

July 1, 2012

So here we are: 98 books in and 98 books to go. Halfway round the world, exactly halfway through the year.

And what a journey it’s been so far. We’ve heard the North Korean government’s official line on fiction, sourced a manuscript of a classic novel unavailable in English from Mozambique and listened to a story written specially for the project from the world’s newest country South Sudan.

We’ve seen a Burundian novel published to ebook because of enthusiasm from blog readers, discovered the Andorran Dan Brown and had help from a Luxembourgish pop star to find a book from the world’s only grand duchy. We’ve even seen the world change slightly, with Palestine replacing Kosovo on the list.

The project’s been featured in two national newspapers, on UNESCO’s list of World Book Day initiatives and on countless other blogs around the globe, from Romania to South Korea.

None of this would have been possible without you. From the many people who’ve suggested books, helped with research and even gone to bookshops in far-flung places on my behalf, to the kind folk who comment on, like, tweet and share posts, making all the early mornings and late nights worthwhile, you have kept me going. Thank you.

But it’s not over yet. Not by a long chalk. And some of the biggest challenges lie ahead.

There are 25 countries that I have yet to find any books for. These are:

  • Brunei
  • Central African Republic
  • Comoros
  • Guinea Bissau
  • Honduras
  • Kiribati
  • Liechtenstein
  • Madagascar
  • Mauritania
  • Micronesia, Federated States of
  • Monaco
  • Mongolia
  • Myanmar
  • Niger
  • Palau
  • Panama
  • Papua New Guinea
  • Qatar
  • Saint Vincent and the Grenadines
  • San Marino
  • Sao Tome and Principe
  • Seychelles
  • Slovakia
  • Tuvalu
  • Vanuatu

There are also plenty of other countries on the list that could do with some more recommendations.

So I’m asking you – yes, you, sitting there reading this now – to help me again. Please tweet/share/email/discuss/create expressive dance routines about this project. Please look at the list and see if there are any countries you might be able to help find novels, short story collections or memoirs from.

Maybe you have friends or relatives there? Maybe someone you work with does? Or someone whose restaurant you eat in? Or that nice man you sit next to sometimes on the bus*? Perhaps you’re going on holiday there this summer or you found a blog by someone from there recently?

However you do it and however tenuous the connections seem, I’d love to hear about them. Let’s see what we can find between us.

*Please be sure before you engage him in conversation that he really is a nice man.

Blogcast: Final preparations

December 30, 2011

So this is it: less than 48 hours to go until the great adventure begins. The shelf is ready and the list is groaning with suggestions of books from more than 110 countries (just 86 or so left to find — let me know if you can help… or if you’ve got an idea for a better title than the ones on my list).

Already the first consignment of books is peering down at me as I type, ooh, and producer Chris Elcombe has put together this blogcast about the project…

With thanks to Steve Lennon for the shelf pic.

What counts as a story?

December 22, 2011

It seemed so simple: read one book from every country in the world in 2012. What could possibly be confusing about that?

But as soon as I started to plan the project in earnest, the questions started coming in. Was I including poetry? What about plays? And memoirs? Where did I stand on biographies? Did journalism count? Did the books have to be contemporary?

I realised I was going to have to define my terms a little more carefully.

A lot of the people I spoke to about this project felt that I should stick to prose fiction. This was my first instinct too. After all, novels, novellas and short stories are the main media for storytelling, aren’t they? Surely I should keep a level playing field between all countries by reading only one particular kind of book?

But as time went on, I got more and more recommendations for intriguing books that wouldn’t fit that mould and found myself getting frustrated. I heard of literary award-winning journalism that had led to bounties being placed on writers’ heads and biographies detailing extraordinary lives, and I wanted to read them.

There were also books that straddled several genres. Dr Ruth Martin, who recommended Elias Canetti’s autobiographical work The Torch in My Ear for Austria, for example, wrote in her comment that ‘the writing is wonderfully literary and he does “embellish” the truth a little’. One man’s memoir might just be another man’s fairytale…

I also realised that, while prose fiction may be fairly ubiquitous, it’s by no means native to every culture. In fact, in places where stories tend to be passed on verbally, narrative poems may be much truer reflections of literature there.

The question of contemporaneity also gave me a dilemma or two. Much like M Lynx Qualey, who very kindly wrote a blog post setting out her recommendations for Arabic literature in translation,  I was tempted to keep to recent texts. But when Dr Valerie Henitiuk of the British Centre for Literary Translation told me that her all-time favourite translation was Sonja Arntzen’s rendering of the 10th century Japanese Kagero Diary, there was no way I was going to bar it from the list.

So, after chewing it over for a while, I decided that I would count all narratives that could be read to full effect by one reader on their own. This means memoirs, novels, short stories, novellas, biographies, narrative poems and reportage are in and, with regret, non-narrative poetry and plays are out.

I also decided that while I would stick to mainly contemporary stories, I wanted to leave the door open for fantastic blasts from the past. The one condition is that the works have to have been created when the country was in existence in something like its modern-day form.

So if you know of an outstanding eighth century Swedish epic, or an intriguing narrative poem from Tuvalu, now’s your chance to tell the world (well, me, at least) about it. Keep the suggestions coming in – there are still quite a few gaps on that there list…

Some people say you should only read books in their original languages. This may be because they believe a particular text is inherently sacred – as in the case of the Quran – or because they are worried about bias and erroneous interpretations creeping in Chinese whispers-style when a third party gets between writer and reader. It can also be down to concerns about the difficulty of translating idioms, images and ideas that are specific to particular cultures (see writer Miguel Fernandes Ceia’s recent blog post for The Independent).

However there is often an element of snobbishness mixed up in this view too. Culture, we seem to think, shouldn’t come easy. It should be hard work and anything that threatens to make it more accessible is not quite cricket — a bit like someone refusing to have Brussel sprouts with their turkey on Christmas day.

There was definitely more than a hint of this in my mind when I started to think about my challenge to read a book from every country in 2012. Being able to read (slowly and with a very big dictionary) in French and German, I felt it was only right that I should take on stories from Francophone and German-speaking countries in their original languages. This would enable me to access the texts in their purest form (and allow me to show off how clever I am).

Then a kindly linguist pointed out that reading in other languages would miss the point. If this blog was about one person in London trying to access all of world literature, she said, it should stick to texts in the language that most Londoners can read: English.

After a bit of headscratching, I realised she was right. After all, if I truly believed that only reading done in the original language really counted then what was I doing trying to read my way around the world? Even with my impressive trilingualism (erhem), surely such a view would mean that I was only really able to access a very tiny percentage of what the world had to offer? And besides did I honestly believe that my schoolgirl French would provide a fuller, more meaningful reading experience than a translation researched and crafted by a professional linguist? 

In fact the more I thought about it, the more vital translation seemed to be to people around the world having a hope of understanding where others are coming from. And the more scandalous it seemed that even despite the excellent work of organisations such as the Society of Authors’ Translators AssociationEnglish PEN and the British Centre for Literary Translation (all of which have already been hugely supportive of this project) translated texts only make up 3 per cent of published works in the UK each year. (In fact, as English PEN’s Emma Cleave told me, even the figure of 3 per cent, which is quoted in pretty much any article you read about literary translation, is probably exaggerated — no one’s sure where it originated, so if you’ve got any idea we’d all love to know!)

Then there’s the fact that, as more books are sold in English than in any other language (according to English PEN and Free Word’s Global Translation Initiative Report), we are putting writers in other languages at a huge disadvantage by failing to translate all but a handful of the great foreign language works out there — particularly when the works of English language writers are so widely translated. The excellent Cairo-based blogger M. Lynx Qualey (another valued supporter of this project) wrote eloquently on this subject recently for the Egypt Independent.

So the long and short of it is that I am embracing translation. I am reading only in English and I make no apologies for it. I want to hear about all the latest, best and most exciting translations and the quirky, little-known ones too. I don’t care if something has been through three or four languages to get to me; I don’t care if you’ve translated it and sent me the text yourself (in fact I’d love that). If a work’s good, then it’s better that it has a chance to reach as wide an audience as possible instead of staying forever closed off to millions of people.

Keep the suggestions of books coming in — this is getting exciting…

One of the first challenges I had to face when starting to prepare for my project to read a book from every country in 2012 was to decide exactly what I meant by ‘country’. Having grown up in the UK, where there’s always someone talking about making a bid for independence – whether it’s Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Yorkshire or some of the feistier parts of south-east London – I had an inkling that this might be trickier than it first appeared.

But it wasn’t until I typed ‘number of countries in the world’ into Google that I realised quite what I was letting myself in for.

There are a lot of conflicting answers to the question. The UN has 193 members. There will be 205 countries represented at the London 2012 Olympic Games. And all in all there are at least 258 national flags in the world today (see the video below, which has 257 of them apart from the one for South Sudan, the world’s newest country, which declared independence from Sudan in July 2011).

Then there are the stateless nations, like the Kurds, who define themselves as a separate group but don’t have a territory to call their own. I’m not sure if anyone has counted these up, but I get the impression that the number of these depends on where you stand.

A lot of the issues have to do with the definition of what we mean by a sovereign state. As set out in the Montevideo Convention, sovereign statehood essentially boils down to having a permanent population, defined borders, a government and dealings with other states. You’re a state if you say you are and the people in and around you agree. But as the nightly news will tell you, this is often not as simple as it sounds.

The list I’m working from now comprises all UN-recognised countries plus Palestine and Taiwan. When I started the project, I was using what seemed to be the most universally accepted list of sovereign states out there. This included all UN-recognised countries, plus Kosovo. I took the liberty of adding Taiwan to this because it used to be a member of the UN and still maintains relations with many countries. This gave me a grand total of 196.

However as the project went on, I realised the list I’d been using was actually based on states recognised by Western countries such as the US. Given that this is a global project, this seemed a little wonky.

So I decided to change the world (there’s a phrase I’ve always wanted to write) and use a list of states with some degree of recognition (past or present) from the UN as a more global barometer of statehood. Counting permanent observer and ‘non-member entity’ Palestine and Taiwan, this came to 196 too and in practice only meant swapping Palestine for Kosovo on the list.  So this is what I did – not purely to save myself work, but also because as far as I could see recognition by this global organisation was one of the clearest and most universally agreed upon definitions of countryhood around.

It’s by no means a perfect system though and it will mean odd omissions from my list, like Puerto Rico and Hong Kong, both of which, despite having quite distinct cultures and histories are technically territories of other states. Still, it’s the best I’ve got to go on for now. And it will certainly keep me busy.

Please do keep the suggestions of titles coming – I’m going to need all the help I can get!

This post was updated on 10 June 2012 to reflect my decision to include Palestine in Kosovo’s stead on the list.

In 2012, the world is coming to London for the Olympics and I’m going out to meet it. I’m planning to read my way around as many of the globe’s 196 countries (yes, I count Taiwan) as I can, sampling one book from every nation.

I want to read a story from Swaziland, a novel from Nepal, a book from Bolivia, a… well, you get the picture.

It’s going to be tough — according to the Society of Authors, only 3 per cent of the books published in the UK each year are translations. There are plenty of languages that have next to nothing translated into English. Then there are all the tiny tucked away places like Nauru and Tavalu (I know, I hadn’t either), where there may not be much written down at all.

Some countries have a culture of almost exclusively oral storytelling (alright, get your giggles over with now). Others have governments that don’t like to let works of art leak out to corrupt westerners.

And that’s not to mention the whole issue of what constitutes a national literature in the first place. Is it by a person born in that place? Is it written in the country? Can it be about another nation state?

Frankly I don’t know. I’m hoping I’ll figure out the answers (or at least my answers) to some of these questions en route.

What I do know is I can’t do it by myself. As anyone who’s dropped in on my A year of reading women blog will realise, I tend to stick mostly to British and North American writers, with the occasional South African, Australian and Indian thrown in. My knowledge of world literature is shamefully anglocentric.

So I need your help. I need you to tell me what’s hot in Russia, what’s cool in Malawi, and what’s downright smoking in Iceland. I hope to get as good a list together as possible in advance so I can hit the ground sprinting come New Year’s Day.

The books can be classics or current favourites. They can be obscure folk tales or commercial triumphs. All I ask is that they capture something of the character of a country somewhere in the world — oh, and that they’re good.

With thanks to Jason Cooper for the idea.

Picture by Steve Lennon

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