Book review: The World Between Two Covers

The World Between Two Covers

The World Between Two Covers:
Reading the Globe

Before 2012, Ann Morgan considered herself rather “a literary xenophobe”, reading mostly British and American writers. At the suggestion of a fellow book blogger, she decided to change that and lunch into an amazing project: to read a book coming from each country of the world and to review them on her blog A Year of Reading the World.

Part-penance, part-prophylactic, this undertaking would, I hoped, atone for my years of literary insularity and inoculate me against the narrowness of mind that such a restricted diet of reading matter must have predisposed me towards. It would be the corrective treatment that my stunted and anemic reading needed.
Page 7

Fascinated myself by world literature, I eagerly followed her reviews, as she ticked each country, one after the other.

Then, I realized she was publishing a book about her experience. Ann graciously sent me The World Between Two Covers some time after that. Always behind some urgent reading deadline, only recently did I finally take time to read and savor every line of it.

At first, I thought this was going to be a print version of her blog reviews. I was totally wrong. Her work is so much more than just a blog turned into a book.

It is so well organized: while for sure providing examples taken from and about the 197 books she read for her project, she broadens so much the picture that the end result is a gigantic fresco of world literature today, touching upon so many subjects.

For instance, in the 2nd chapter (Plotting the route: the global literature landscape), she wonders about the number of countries she was going to read. How many countries are there in the world? You would think a quick glance at wikipedia would give you the answer right away. Actually, this is not that easy. I was fascinated by the topic – I had not even thought about it before. Even the way we draw maps is so influenced by a Western perspective!

Chapter 3 (Identifying landmarks) proposes a rich reflection on the concepts of nationality and cultural identity. It also shows how hard it is to go beyond the hurdle of superimposed cultural identities that have no real connection with reality.
As the English language tends to dominate the word, local distinctiveness is often pushed into nonexistence and not reflected in novels.

Many chapters focus of course on multiple facets pertaining to the domain of translation (including the way interpreters are treated in the army! – in chapter 11).
Did you suspect there are so many nations with only one or two writers translated into English, and plenty with none at all??
As a literary translator myself (alas, just for the too common European pair, English to French), these pages were both fascinating and alarming, as they highlight how self-entered we are on our English speaking literary world. Goethe (1749-1832) had shown the danger centuries ago, but who paid attention?

‘Let to itself, every literature will exhaust its vitality if it is not refreshed by the interest and contributions of a foreign one.’ From this perspective, the ‘self-sufficiency’ of the English-language publishing industry looks less like good housekeeping and more like a recipe for intellectual impoverishment, malnutrition and eventual starvation.
Page 78

Apart from being the result of Western imperialism, the sub-representation of some countries in the world of publishing is alas also due sometimes to geographical constraints.
For those countries (small Caribbean Islands and Laos for instance), technology (ebooks and POD) and self-publishing are finally offering more chances for their authors to be known abroad or even at home. There was an interesting passage (in chapter 5) on self-publishing and the “freedom of the press” back in the 17th century!
It was incredible to see how Ann managed to put her hand on books coming from very little known parts of the world (unknown at least to most Americans).

Chapter 6 deals with the relationship between oral and written traditions, and the rapid disappearance of many world languages.

There are of course political factors, such as censorship and propaganda (chapter 7). I really enjoyed Ann’s presentation of the case of Hamid Ismailov, an author I discovered a couple of years ago, and how he eventually had no choice but leave his country (Uzbekistan).

To some extent, we all police what we allow words to say or do to us: censorship can be in the eye of the reader too.
Page 163

I really appreciated the questions Ann invites us to think about in chapter 8: can reading books make us better people? Can it make us act better?
In this chapter, she also reflects on the reader as a co-writer: we act on the book as readers, and they also act on us and on our brains. Reading diversity can indeed stimulate more complex thought patterns, and make us rethink the wisdom and normalcy of what we daily take for granted.

I was captivated by the passage (chapter 9) on the Chinese translations of Sherlock Holmes: for Chinese readers apparently, who’s the killer is not what makes them turn the page. So much so that sometimes the clue is given in the title of the book itself! You will have to read Ann’s book to see what’s more important to Chinese readers.

We do not need to travel abroad to experience culture shock: it can happen to us as real life is presented in books, not only in relation to other countries and times, but also about themes such as sex and race.
And when we read translations, we make ourselves vulnerable to potential deception and betrayal – yes, I was personally so upset when I recently discovered that the English translation of 1Q84 had skipped many pages from the original Japanese text!)
But, just as two people don’t read the same text the same way, it is inevitable that two translators for instance would produce two different translations, reflecting their own reaction to the source text.

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The book represents a refreshing invitation to go beyond reading the familiar, a habit unfortunately highly encouraged by publishers and online shops (you-liked-this-book?- Read-this-one type of thing).

Ann also highlights the generosity of fellow book bloggers and readers in general, in their recommendations and suggestions, and as she even received books from obscure parts of the world. Some translators got to work so that she could read a book from a country whose books had never been translated in English before!

At the end, you can find of course the list of all the books Ann read for the project, but also many other precious references (printed books and web sources).
With some variations, Ann is still reading the globe today, you can do it too by following her blog.

The style is very serious, based on extremely broad and well researched data, scholarly though very accessible, pertaining to many areas of culture, science, and society. At the same time, it is often full of humor, giving in many places a very humble picture of the author herself.

The whole book is obviously a homage to reading and world literature. In one of her last paragraphs, Ann sums it up so well:

These texts are souvenirs of the longest year of my life; a time so packed with incident, thought, new encounters and discovery that, looking back, it seems more like a decade than a single twelve-month span. They are proof that here and now – in what may turn out to be a brief moment in history – extraordinary things are possible.
Page 291

VERDICT: Superb fresco on world literature today. A must have reference for all interested in literature and cultural diversity. Leave the familiar, open yourself to new horizons through books.

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The World Between Two Covers

Author: Ann Morgan
US release date: May 2015
by Liveright
Pages: 326
Genre:
Theory and Criticism / Writing / Books about Books / Travel

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In full compliance with FTC Guidelines,
I received this book free of charge from the author.
I was in no way compensated for this post as a reviewer, and the thoughts are my own.

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15 thoughts on “Book review: The World Between Two Covers

  1. It sounds like this could have received 6 stars! I love your phrase “a gigantic fresco of world literature.” Her project is so compelling because of the quest nature of it, far from passive but actively searching, querying, and reaching out for the seemingly impossible at times. Such commitment and determination to get past obstacles, and faith that there was good writing to be found everywhere, in such diverse places. I also liked the quote about translation, acknowledging that translators are also readers co-constructing the text with the author. Bravo for sharing this! What was your favorite, among her discoveries?

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    • thanks. As for your question, I would have to go back and revisit all her reviews…
      But this cultural difference as for thrillers – see Sherlock Holmes translated n Chinese, was so fascinating. It also explained some recent Japanese thrillers I have read, so it may be more an Asian than a Chinese only trait

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  2. I have been an avid reader of the author’s blog for a very long time. Through it, my suggestions for our library system have become gratefully appreciated ( or reviled dependant on which librarian you ask) and my own explorations have expanded. However, her book, even in e formats is very expensive so it remains on my wish list. I am an avid “saleswoman” for this book

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  3. I saw a few rather negative reviews of this book when it was published -those comments mostly focused on her chapter dealing with the dearth of fiction in translation and challenging why publishing houses are not doing more in this area. I thought those comments were really unfair and didnt give her full credit for bringing this issue to broader attention. Ok, so many professional critics were already aware of it but what Anne did was to give the issue more air.

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    • I’m shocked. Yes, totally unfair. She just describes mere facts. I see her Goodreads current rating is not high at all, but when you read the negative reviews, it’s basically because the book is not what the readers expected. They wanted to hear more about each book, even though each has been thoroughly presented on her blog! On the contrary, I thought her synthesis was brilliant, but it does require a bit of attention, and alas it seems many readers are not ready to make an effort, nor even to open to the author’s idea of writing her book – which is pretty bad when her whole purpose is precisely to broaden horizons. I guess these people are not ready yet to read authors from other countries, with totally different approaches to all kinds of things. But I know YOU would love it!

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  5. What a fascinating sounding read. I would like to pick up more books from around the world. I just keep thinking of how much broader our taste in books might be if there was a larger emphasis on learning a second language in the education system. Thanks for the review!

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    • yes, the book was born from this British blogger’s project to read a book from all nations. I’m fortunate being French, where you start learning English in kindergarten, and then have to study at least one, if not 2, other foreign languages

      Liked by 1 person

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  7. Translations are an art, really. It happens the same in spanish, sometimes they give us the clues to the story at the title ….. And I feel like it’s not the same. From spanish to english is totally different too, there are words and experiences that simple cannot be translated. I’m lucky I can read in both languages, but I’d love to read in many more. Specially because we also don’t have a lot of access to books from other countries.

    I loved Ann’s challenge and I’m thinking about doing it myself.

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    • tell me about it! I’m actually translating myself English novels into French. One of the most challenging thing is definitely the title!! and humor!!
      Some years ago, I did something similar and read books from 52 countries, it was my most fascinating reading experience

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