Culture: Open to interpretation

Illustration by Dave Cutler

From the July 2016 issue of The Rotarian

Whenever I arrive in a new country, one of the first places I go is a bookstore. I do this for several reasons. Having spent much of my life and income in them, I always find them to be comforting spaces. And they often stock more specific maps and guides than you can get outside the country.

But the real reason I love these places is that by scanning the titles for sale – just gazing down the spines – I can get a glimpse of how people in that country see themselves. What stories do they tell? What stories do they read? What books do they print? And what do they import from abroad? And though this is harder in countries where I don’t speak the language, I go anyway. Sometimes you can tell what genres are selling – what that country’s readers want to know and what they aspire to be.

I’ve experienced almost every corner of the book industry: I have bought and read and loved books, of course. I have sorted and sold them at one of the world’s largest bookstores. I’ve scouted them at rummage sales to sell myself. For a few months I worked in a book recycling factory, where we chopped up 30,000 pounds of books a day – titles like Zsa Zsa Gabor’s One Lifetime Is Not Enough and Shirley MacLaine’s Going Within. Their pages were then bound into massive bales that went on to be reborn as other things (with luck, more books). Most recently, I wrote a book myself.

That may be why I’ve never put much stock in the technophiles and futurists who’ve been predicting the end of printed books since the dawn of the internet. Today, the end of books seems further away than ever: Total printed book sales rose 2.4 percent in 2014 and 2.8 percent in 2015. In her own new book, The World between Two Covers: Reading the Globe, writer Ann Morgan notes that the University Library at Cambridge adds roughly 500 books to its collection every day – one every 2.88 minutes.

In 2009, 500,000 English-language books were published worldwide. But very few non-English books are translated into our language. In 2008 in the UK and Ireland, only 4.37 percent of the literary works published were translations, according to Morgan. She began to wonder about all the books and stories that she was missing, and she decided to take on a methodical and audacious project: to spend a year reading a book from every country on the planet.

This presented several problems. First, how many countries are there? This might seem like a simple matter, but it’s not. The number usually cited is 196, including Taiwan. But as Morgan points out in her book, some 270 national flags are flying around the world, and 280 country-code internet domains are recognized by ICANN, the authority on such things. There are places such as Western Sahara, Gibraltar, and Palestine – places whose residents feel they live in their own country, but whose more powerful neighbors may not. The question of what a country is can be tricky.

Other problems also arose: How do you pick a single book to represent a country? Which book will best capture the spirit of a country or its people? And how do you determine exactly what country a particular book is from? Is V.S. Naipaul English or Trinidadian? Is Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao an American book or a Dominican one? Is American Gods, a science fiction account by English-born Neil Gaiman about the various deities brought to this continent, an American book, an English one, or something else?

Then there are the countries that have produced hardly any books at all: For the tiny state of San Marino, which sits within the borders of Italy, Morgan had to settle for a history, The Republic of San Marino. For Guinea-Bissau in West Africa, the only English-language book she could find was a collection of speeches and writing by independence leader Amílcar Cabral called Unity and Struggle. For a book from Mozambique, Morgan contacted a defunct company to get an unpublished translation of Ualalapi by Ungulani Ba Ka Khosa, which is considered one of the great African novels of the 20th century and which has never been published in English. The island nation of São Tomé and Príncipe had no English-language books at all, so Morgan bought several Portuguese copies of Olinda Beja’s The Shepherd’s House, found nine people willing to translate chapters, and ended up with a brand-new book of her own.

Such literary spelunking can be exhilarating, and Morgan laments the fact that we all don’t do more of it. But even if more books were translated, would more be read?

Many of the books that I love – Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Matigari, Nigerian author Chris Abani’s GraceLand, Ugandan writer Doreen Baingana’s Tropical Fish – are fun for me because I’ve spent time in those places. I can remember the sounds and the voices. Reading those books is like going back for a visit. I have been to the bookshops there and pulled the books off the shelf myself, then walked out into the streets they describe. I can recall the sounds and voices surrounding the stories that unfold in their pages.

Every book is a kind of journey. And just as when we board a plane for a country we’ve never been to, a book from a new place contains the thrill of not knowing what you will find when you arrive. “Page by page,” Morgan writes, “these regions … became living, breathing entities, as if their stories had made them real.”

That is what books do: They make our stories real, physical. They turn our ideas into tangible things. They are like rafts where we put the things we believe in and hope for. Then we push them out to sea.

Perhaps that’s why, when Morgan announced her project, people from around the world rushed to offer suggestions and help with translations. Some even sent her books from their local shops, in the hope that their stories could cross over into the larger world.

In his dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury imagined a world where books were so powerful the government sent its “firemen” to burn them because they threatened the world it wanted to exist.

One character, looking back, recalls: “Books were … where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget. There is nothing magical in them, at all. The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.”