Tips for reading outside your comfort zone

The makeup of bookshelves is changing. Since my 2012 quest to read a book from every country, it’s been great to see many of the nations that had no literature commercially available in English translation back then becoming represented in the world’s most-published language, as well as many other wonderful books being brought to an increasingly enthusiastic anglophone readership.

This year, that much-needed expansion of many people’s reading looks set to accelerate. In response to the #BlackLivesMatter protests that spread around the globe in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in the US, there has been a lot of discussion about diversifying the voices we listen to and the texts we read. Social media has been full of lists of must-read books by writers of colour (including this excellent resource put together by award-winning translator Jennifer Croft), and many people have declared their intention to broaden their cultural intake and seek out works by people from demographics that have traditionally been marginalised in anglophone publishing.

I think this is a great thing. Having discovered how transformative reading books from a multiplicity of communities and perspectives can be during my quest, I am keen to encourage everybody to read widely because I am convinced that sharing stories is one of the most powerful tools we human beings have for fostering understanding, empathy and cooperation across cultural, political, racial, religious, social and geographical divides.

But I’m also aware that reading outside your comfort zone can be challenging. If you’re only used to absorbing certain kinds of stories told in a familiar range of ways (which is what the mainstream anglophone publishing industry – for all the great books it boasts – has tended to produce), it is daunting to try to tackle a novel from an unfamiliar tradition. What if you don’t get it? Or it’s too much like hard work? What if you have to spend half your time looking things up? What if the emotional passages leave you cold and the jokes go over your head?

With this in mind (and as a companion to the blogging guide I wrote at the start of lockdown), I’ve put together a list of some tips for approaching books from unfamiliar traditions gleaned from more than eight years of wide-ranging international literary exploration:

  • Get comfortable with not knowing If you read a book by someone from a community you don’t know well, you are likely to encounter unfamiliar concepts. There may be vocabulary you don’t know or references that you cannot place. There may be symbolism that you can’t unpick or don’t even realise is there. This can be difficult, but it doesn’t mean that you should put the book down. Just as it’s possible to enjoy a television drama even if you miss the odd scene, so you can get a lot out of a novel that you don’t follow perfectly. If the writing is good, the story should sweep you along and you may well find that it answers many of your questions along the way.
  • Get comfortable with being uncomfortable If you read books by people with markedly different beliefs and perspectives to your own, you are going to be challenged. Sometimes – as I found with the many less-than-flattering presentations of the British Empire I have encountered in literature from elsewhere – this may prompt you to re-evaluate your views. On other occasions – as happened to me when characters in several of the novels from countries where homosexuality is illegal expressed homophobic sentiments as though they were universal truths – you will be offended. We all have to decide for ourselves what we’re prepared to entertain and it’s up to you whether you throw a book down in outrage, but I think there can be value in seeing what the world looks like through the eyes of those we disagree with, especially when we’re not quite the reader the author imagines us to be.
  • Get comfortable with making mistakes You’re going to get things wrong. You’re going to misunderstand. You’re going to mispronounce. Sometimes, you’re going to miss the point. At least at first and probably for a long time after that. It’s all right. Discovering that you don’t know something is an opportunity. It’s what you do about it that counts.
  • Be curious There’s no shame in ignorance, but there is shame in complacency. If your reading leads you to discover a blind spot in your thinking, you owe it to yourself to try to address this. It’s not always easy. It can be tiring. And you may find that the path it leads you down takes you some distance from the person you were when you picked up that book. But the view from your new vantage-point will probably be better.
  • Beware knee-jerk reactions It’s a human trait to dismiss as flawed things we don’t understand. In the case of literature from other communities, the instinctive response that something is bad may simply indicate that a technique is unfamiliar to us or point out a glitch in our thinking. Many great novels have been panned by those who don’t know how to read them. If you find yourself taking against a book that has made it through the bottleneck of international publishing to be one of the relatively few titles translated into English each year (or one of the relatively few titles by writers of colour published annually), ask yourself if there may not in fact be something lacking in your own reading. If you’re not sure, give the book the benefit of the doubt.
  • Stay critical Guarding against knee-jerk reactions doesn’t mean you have to switch off your critical faculties. It simply means that you criticise your own responses as well as the book. There are some bad translated books out there. (I’ve read a few of them.) Even great books usually have problems and, as a reader, you are entitled to call them out. You are also entitled not to like things that everyone else agrees are brilliant.
  • Beware cross-cultural parallels When we encounter something new, it’s natural to try to find comparable things in our recollections and experiences. If you have studied literature, you will probably have been encouraged to make connections between texts. However, such impulses should be treated with caution when it comes to books from unfamiliar traditions. While they may be valid in some cases, they may also impose assumptions and frameworks that are alien to the work in question and produce a warped reading as a result. If you find yourself thinking that a book from elsewhere reminds you of the writing of Thomas Hardy or Edith Wharton, for example, notice the observation but don’t let it dominate to the point that it takes over.
  • Treat explanatory material with caution Footnotes and introductions in books from elsewhere can be very helpful in illuminating some of the things most anglophone readers may not know. But they can also be boring, distracting and – in the worst cases – downright wrongheaded (witness the introductory note to the 18th-century translation of The Koran on my bookshelf, in which the translator describes the religious work as a ‘forgery’ and explains that helping Christians find ways to convert Muslims was his motivation for bringing the work into English). My general policy is to leave extraneous material until last (if at all) and to consult footnotes sparingly. Make up your own mind about a book before you allow someone else to tell you what to think.
  • Go at your own pace Faster is rarely better when it comes to reading. On balance, you’ll probably get a lot more from immersing yourself in a handful of texts than skimming thousands.
  • Enjoy yourself You’re a reader, not a martyr. If a book is making you miserable (and not in a good way), put it down. Life is full of enough challenges without making reading a chore. Instead, follow your inclinations. If you like crime novels, start expanding your reading that way – try ‘sunshine noir’, as I once heard Afrikaans author Deon Meyer describe African thrillers, or take a trip through some of the troubling police novels of Latin America. You’ll probably find that, in time, this leads you to other kinds of books as your comfort zone expands to cover more and more of the world’s extraordinary stories.

Photo © Steve Lennon

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 flickr.com.