An ‘Olympian’ Read

Graphic by Lijo Simon

Suneetha Balakrishnan

Five years ago, 196 independent countries on the globe went to London for the highest sporting event on the planet. And a reader in London celebrated their arrival she best knew: through reading books. She decided to work her way round as many of the globe’s 196 independent countries as she could, sampling one book from every nation on the U.N. list of independent countries of that date.

Ann Morgan, the reader in the story, is a Writer, Editor, Singer, Blogger, and a news editor and feature writer, with a master’s in Creative Writing from UEA. And she would maintain a blog where she would document her odyssey through world literature which was to go n to inspire a thousand conversations among bibliophiles.

In that extraordinary year of reading, Ann was also working full-time for the first seven months. She realised that in order to stay on track she needed to aim to read four books a week. This meant reading one book every two days and then one short book in one day once a week, with a little give and take for very long and very short works. As most books are between 200-300 pages, this worked out to reading 100-150 pages a day, which would take around three hours.

Her daily commute was when she got a lot of reading done, which was an hour each way, so this meant finding an extra hour or two at lunch and in the evenings after work. Then came the task of writing the blog posts and the research into the books, so she got up early and spent a couple of hours on that each day before she left for work.

Obviously Ann couldn’t do it alone, and asked for suggestions, which made the blog participatory in every sense. And that’s how I met her; as she pondered over a book choice for India, leading to a very interesting conversation online. Later on I interviewed her, and asked her: What was your most difficult choice and why, how did you finally choose? Here’s Ann’s response, and ahem, a blow-of-the-trumpet for someone who just happened to walk along the periphery of her Olympian effort.

Ann Morgan

“India was without question my most difficult choice. I could easily have spent ten years reading Indian literature and still not have scratched the surface of the rich and diverse stories your country has to offer. Then I was very lucky that a certain Indian journalist called Suneetha stopped by the blog and pointed out a key omission in the nominations on the list: all the books were written in English. She said this was second-best to the literature on offer from the many other languages spoken across the country. I was struck by the comment, particularly as translation was a big part of my project, so I decided to try and find a translation of work by one of her favourite authors, the Malayalam writer MT Vasudevan Nair. I was lucky to find an English version of his classic Kaalam and I enjoyed it immensely.”

But how did she access so many books? Ann says she bought all the books except where people following the blog sent in copies, as gifts. Several authors and publishers sent her works to read, some even unpublished manuscripts, so it was a great privilege to be one of the few people ever to read the English version. From some countries, people translated a book just to make it possible that the country be included in the list.

Ann’s blog is a bibliophile’s treasure; it will bring you to many names across world literature, in languages and countries you didn’t really care about. And while I am on the topic, her previous reading project, (yes, she rather makes a habit of this) was A Year of Reading Women, but quite Anglocentric in focus.

Her ‘year of reading the world’ led to a book in 2015, published under two different titles; ‘Reading the World’ in the UK and Commonwealth, and ‘The World Between Two Covers’, in the US and Canada.
So how would she sum up her experience?

“The project was a life-changing experience. The book I wrote later examines the big questions I encountered during my adventure; such as how translation, censorship, cultural identity and technology affect the way we share and understand stories. Ultimately, it explores how reading can change and shape us, and reveals the extraordinary power that stories have to connect us across cultural, geographical, political and religious divides,” she says.

“This project has forced me to question all sorts of things I used to take for granted, from what the word ‘country’ means to what we talk about when we call something a ‘book’. It has also brought me into contact with people all over the planet, and for that I’m very grateful. My world is a much richer place for it,” she adds.

“I am also conscious of what an amazing moment in history we are living in. The internet is making it possible for us to build links with one another as never before. Twenty years ago it would have been impossible to read the world in a year. I hope that as internet law and the monetisation of social media take hold we are able to preserve the incredible freedom of communication that we have at the moment in most parts of the planet”, Ann concludes in her blog where she lists the book recommendations received for each country of the world.

And in celebration of this five-year milestone and as a thank you for all that kindness, in 2017 Ann is sending one book a month to a stranger anywhere in the world. Anyone can apply to receive a book. Simply visit the project post and leave a comment telling her about you and what you like to read.

Ann Morgan also has another book, a fiction, called ‘Beside Myself’, published in 2016.

(Suneetha Balakrishnan is a bilingual translator, writer and journalist from Kerala. She can be reached at suneethabalakrishnan@gmail.com )

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