Beyond the West
The World Between Two Covers: Reading the Globe
(Liveright Publishing, 2015)
In 2012, British writer, journalist, and blogger Ann Morgan took on the mighty task of reading the globe. Over the course of the year, she read one book from 196 countries on the planet while simultaneously blogging about the endeavor. The World Between Two Covers is a culmination of that project and makes the case that the global literary field suffers from both a troubling worldwide Anglo dominance as well as a lack of international presence in the West. Morgan draws upon research, personal experience, and other literary sources, but she is most compelling when relaying the experience of her yearlong effort so that we can engage in the journey with her.
Morgan’s project began while writing another blog. In 2011, she set out to only read works by women. When a fellow blogger recommended an Australian book, she initially dismissed it because it was written by a man. The blogger persisted, inspiring Morgan to take stock of her bookshelf. “The awful truth dawned: I was a literary xenophobe.” A new project was born, as was its companion blog, “A Year of Reading the World.” Each country’s blog entry shed light on Morgan’s selection process (and the difficulties she encountered) and offered a brief book review. The World Between Two Covers continues where the blog left off. It isn’t tied as closely to Morgan’s literary selections; rather, she casts a wider net, providing a larger context in which to view the project.
The root of that context is personal. The book begins with Morgan’s experience as a Cambridge University student and the awe she felt in the school library, a venerable hall with more books than she could possibly read. It’s clear that the library made a lasting impression, as her prose here is some of the book’s strongest. “There was a touch of the grotesque about it, as though a Roald Dahl book and a Kafka novel had been left too close to each other […].” As the chapter continues, Morgan shifts into theory, introducing Goethe’s concept Weltliteratur, a not exactly definable idea concerning our need to read in a more worldly manner. This theorizing combined with her experience in the library awakens in Morgan a new awareness. She concludes with the claim that, like her, we are all literary xenophobes and must essentially relearn to read.
But she does not discuss Cloudstreet, the Australian book that prompted the whole expedition. Did Morgan like the book as much as her fellow blogger thought she would? How did an Australian book, an Eastern country with strong Western influences, compare with other international fare? Morgan addresses these types of questions on the blog, but readers who aren’t familiar with those entries are left wondering about the global books’ contents.
This can be frustrating, which is a shame because the context she provides is quite compelling. For example, Guillermo Yuscarán, the author of the Honduran book on her list, is actually William Lewis, a native Californian. As an adult Lewis moved his family to Honduras and began writing under a Honduran pseudonym. Morgan, who strives for authenticity (she rejected one Kuwaiti novel because it was written by a British expat), uses this situation as an opportunity to discuss the idea of nationality. But rather than focusing on Yuscarán, Morgan explores the issue through analysis of language, religion, patriotism, and birthplace. In the end, “nation” becomes a blurry, unidentifiable term. By examining nationality through the lens of Yuscarán’s life, Morgan arguably could have led us to the same conclusion in a more artful way.
Certainly, rehashing the blog material would feel redundant (and would bore those who kept up with the blog). But in skirting the books’ contents, and turning instead to research and anecdote, Morgan leaves newcomers to her project feeling short-changed. For instance, in a chapter on censorship, Morgan offers historical information about freedom of the press, banned books from past eras, a discussion on Chinese Internet censorship, and more. While these topics are interesting, the section sags with the weight of academic rhetoric with sentences like, “The zeal of people like Comstock has traditionally been matched by the effort and energy that many state-funded organisations put into developing writing that flatters and flutters their work.” However, the chapter picks up when Morgan turns to the North Korean book on her list. Officials claim there’s been no fiction produced in the country’s entire seven-decade history. So Morgan has to work to find a text, selecting a memoir instead. But even this text bears evidence of the state’s hand. Yet here’s where the reading gets good. “[…] what shocked me about the book I read was not its lies or its heartlessness or its absurdity, but the fact that it was appealing to me none the less.” These are the moments that save the book, when Morgan’s blog project and her book, content and context, find unity.
Sara Webster is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York.