Once Ann Morgan, a London-based writer, had decided she’d spend an entire year reading “a book-length prose narrative, written or translated into English,” from each and every country in the world, she inevitably came up against the question, how many countries are there? When she contacted the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to inquire which countries the U.K. recognised, she was told that the list could not be shared as it was a “very political” subject. Left to her own devices, she listed every country that the United Nations recognises or has previously recognised — and added Kurdistan, to make it 196 plus one. The UN in fact serendipitously helped along her wish list, giving official cover, as it were, for her to include Palestine. Morgan’s chosen year in question was 2012, and she had crafted all kinds of excuses to get Palestine on the list. But on November 29, the UN declared Palestine a “non-member state”.

That was also the year of the London Summer Games, and Morgan could well have chosen “countries” that participated. It would have taken the number of territories from which to grab a book to 205. It still would not have given her space to bring in separate books for, say, England and Scotland, as they are represented together in both forums. For that, she’d have had to take the categorisation of international teams in a cricket or football tournament.

The point is that categorisation is a very subjective call, and having made hers, Morgan’s analysis of her 2012 reading list just out as a book, Reading the World: Confessions of a Literary Explorer (Harvill Secker), remains very political in trying to understand how literature is produced, and read. Thankfully eschewing the impulse, if any, to have a cutesy book-by-book summary of her reading, she instead draws from her reading to list the issues involved in coming to grips with, and collectively owning, world literature.

Publishing of course remains very Anglo-American dominated, and Morgan’s survey is especially enlightening when she talks about the smallest outposts, which have little publishing activity and which also draw very feeble interest from publishers elsewhere. There is no commercially obtainable translation of a Malagasy novel, she informs us. When all efforts to find a book from San Marino failed, she contacted their Ministry of Culture, and finally had to make do with a pamphlet about the microstate’s history.

It’s not just the distance from the publishing metropolises of the world that inhibits writers, it is also a legacy of assumptions about who can best tell the stories. Burundian Marie-Terese Toyi’s Weep Not, Refugee too is not commercially available, and reading Morgan’s synopsis of the novel you have to wonder why not. Toyi’s studies were cut short by genocide and war, and when she moved to Nigeria to continue her university education, people there would ask her to write for publication. Toyi explained the import of this encouragement: “I have discovered we don’t trust ourselves. Some writers, like Joseph Conrad, were not born English speakers but they produce something good… We believe that those who write are particularly gifted people, European people, not a typical Burundi.”

Self-publishing has played a significant role in enriching world literature. Derek Walcott self-published long before his Nobel — and at the other end of the literary spectrum, Samoan Lani Wendt Young has achieved commercial success with the self-published Telesa series about an 18-year-old American Samoan’s adjustment in her mother’s homeland.

Remaking identities

How do you identify a writer to be from a particular country? What do you say about the Honduran on Morgan’s list, Guillermo Yuscaran. When the Californian first visited Honduras, his name was William Lewis. Sitting in a mountain town once, he finally resolved how to end a short story that he had been struggling for a long time. He sent the story to Ms. magazine with a woman’s name, Francisca Luis Yuscaran, thinking it’d then have a better chance of acceptance. It was accepted, but eventually with the name Guillermo Yuscaran.

But no recce of world literature is complete without a tribute to those tireless translators who give stories such portability across languages. Morgan goes to Edith Grossman, who says of her celebrated translation of Don Quixote, “My concern as a literary translator was to create a piece of writing in English that perhaps could be called literature too.” Moragn cites an experiment that essentially shows that a story translated by nine different people could yield nine different texts.

In essence, then, the firm list-driven exercise to read the world yields a profile of global literature that is as disturbing as it is affirming — and that is a timely nudge to humbly break out of our set ways and discover new ways of knowing more about the human condition. For isn’t that what literature is all about? And isn’t reading about others, about elsewhere the best way to know our individual selves?