Advice for world readers

One of my favourite things about this project is the way other people have taken it on and made it their own. Several times a week – and sometimes as much as every day – I hear from booklovers who have been inspired to launch their own international-reading ventures.

These can sometimes be very individual and specific – such as the Mexican students who gave away books in their town to promote reading or the horror fan keen to sample something of that genre from as many nations as possible. Usually, however, the messages come from people who, as I did back in 2011, have realised quite how narrow their reading has been and are keen to broaden their horizons by exploring stories from elsewhere.

Sometimes they just want to let me know what they are planning. Sometimes, they ask questions. And, though the questions can be very varied, the most common are these: What advice can I give people trying to read the world? How can you read so much so quickly? Where do you find books from nations with little or no published literature in English? What do you do if you can’t afford to buy books? Can I help?

Much as I’d love to be able to help with individual quests, time and money factors usually make this impossible. During my ‘Postcards from my Bookshelf’ project last year, in which I sent books to 12 strangers in celebration of the fifth anniversary of my quest, I received comments from more than 200 people keen to take part. It simply wouldn’t be possible for me to buy books for everyone.

However, there are a few tips and bits of information that I’ve learnt over the past six years that might be useful for would-be literary explorers. I’m putting them below. Please feel free to add your own advice in the comments.

  • Be curious and open to changing your ideas Reading the world requires you to let go of your assumptions about many things – from morality and history to what counts as a book in the first place. This can be challenging but also hugely rewarding. As far as possible, try to keep an open mind. In particular, when you find yourself reading something that feels difficult, remember that your reaction may reveal more about your own cultural conditioning and blind spots than about the book or country it comes from.
  • Make the quest your own Many of the people I hear from tell me that they’re using my list as a guide. It’s great to know that it’s useful and I hope that the Book of the month reviews help keep it fresh. However, there are so many amazing books out there and a huge amount has changed since I read the world in 2012. Thousands of brilliant new translations have been published, in some cases opening up the literature of countries that had nothing available in English during my quest. Meanwhile, other titles have gone out of print and are harder to find. So, although people are welcome to use my list, I would urge them to explore for themselves too. There are many great resources out there but three good places to start are English PEN’s World Bookshelf, Words Without Borders and Asymptote.
  • Go at your own pace You don’t have to read the world in a year. You don’t have to read it in ten years. It’s much better to go at a pace that you can sustain rather than to drive yourself frantic by trying to cram reading into every spare moment and turning it into a chore. Instead, find a window of time (even if it’s just 15 minutes a day) that you can dedicate to reading and stick to that. And if you find yourself wanting to spend more time reading as you go along – great!
  • Use libraries and other reading resources to read for free Reading can be expensive. Even with the generous book gifts I received from strangers, my original quest cost me several thousand pounds. This can be prohibitive, especially if you live in a part of the world where books are relatively expensive. There aren’t always easy solutions. However, where they exist, libraries can be a fabulous resource for bookworms. Not only do they make books freely available, but they will also often order in titles you request. For people in particularly difficult circumstances, there are charities such as Book Aid working to supply books. It may be worth researching what is available in your area and contacting the relevant organisations to see how international their offering is. Whatever you do, please avoid the temptation to resort to pirated versions of texts. The inequalities in the international publishing industry that mean that some literatures are much more widely read and translated than others will only be reinforced by this. It’s important that authors are paid for their work.
  • Be patient and use your initiative It’s very difficult when you come to a country that has no commercially available literature in English. What you do about this will depend on how much time and energy you have. During my quest (as you’ll see if you read the posts for the Comoros, Panama and São Tomé and Príncipe, to name a few), I resorted to all sorts  of outlandish things to try to source texts, including contacting charities, academics and students working in the region, and tracking translators down through social media. There is no magic solution to ticking off these countries. However, the good news is, it’s getting easier. Since my project, literature from several previously off-limits nations, including Madagascar and Guinea-Bissau, has been released in English. I’m hopeful it won’t be long before every UN-recognised nation has something available in the world’s most-published language. I’ll do my best to keep you informed. Watch this space!

Picture: ‘One last look at 2012. Happy New Year planet Earth!’ by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center on

9 responses

  1. Hi Ann

    I am a huge fan of your project, it really has opened the world up for me. I am slowly travelling around the world in books – have just left Portugal and now headed for the Lebanon.

    One thing you could do is perhaps set up a space or link on your website on a country by country basis for those hard to source books? So for the Comoros as an example, people could collaborate and send in ideas / links etc. You could enable a community of people to talk here – maybe for all countries, to share experiences?

    Anyway just a thought….


    • Thanks Colin. It’s a good point and in some cases some people have already been using a few of the country pages in this way. I think that’s the most intuitive place for this sort of discussion. I’ll have a think about what I do to encourage people to use them in this way. Thanks again and happy reading!

  2. My advice is something I have been doing for many years; read a book written by a writer from the country you are planning to visit, especially historical fiction is great insight to understand the background of a country. Try to visit a new country every year as well, the world is full of exiting places to discover mostly ignored by mainstream. Just to give some example Amin Maalouf from Lebanon and Tan twan Eng from Malaysia.

  3. When I first began working, was in a bookshop,.
    We had to read all the new arrivals in order to sell them to the Book Clubs.
    Your remark trying to read too much could make it into a chore is so true. I read four books s week at that stage.. Never been able to read that many since,
    I have just moved and my biggest possession, are my books. With delight I shall make the library I’ve always dreamt of. Five cubic metres of books 😁😁😁

  4. I started my reading the world challenge last year and used your list as a guide, country by country, but now I have realized that what I am interested in is in the people’s of the world, and that countries have been drawn in a map by someone powerful.
    I find your list is excellent as a starting point, I am always looking for books on kindle version (space problem) and that takes the challenge a notch up.

  5. I’m on a read the world journey as well, inspired by you! My goal is a year and I’m not too far off the mark halfway through, but if it takes a little longer I’m not too concerned. I’ve found the library and thrift book stores have been this poor grad student’s saving grace on the affordability front! Thank you for helping me push myself to use my love of reading to understand the world and the perspectives of the people in it just a little more! I feel like I’m becoming a more empathetic person because of the stories I’ve consumed this year, and for that I am grateful!

  6. I really like this project and I’m happy to see so many people interested in it. Borrowing books from friends is always a good suggestion. I also recommend joining book clubs or even create one with a more international focus.
    This might also be a good first start for those who might want to learn other languages – reading in the original language is always different and quite rewarding.

  7. I have been doing the reading challenge for a few years now and thoroughly enjoying it. Had a thought–why not widen the scope and include books by communities within countries? I am thinking of aborigine or Native Americans writers, for example. It would give a different perspective on the country.

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