Friday, July 19, 2019

The World Between Two Covers: Reading the Globe - by Ann Morgan

I wrote my first blog "My Year of Reading 'Year of' Books" ten years ago. During that year I read, and wrote about, 33 books that documented some stunt that the author had undertaken for a period of twelve months. Some were about diet choices, others about not spending, travel, religion, and indeed, reading. I still like to pick up "year of " books. It is even one of the labels I still use for this blog. I can't remember where I found out about this book, but it seemed like a good choice for my geographer husband and I to enjoy together as an audiobook. We listened to much of it during the long drive between Maryland and Massachusetts while coming back from a visit with our families, and we finished it while we were vacationing in South America to see a total eclipse of the sun (and drink wine). It was fitting that we were traveling as we listened to this book.

This was unlike the other "year of" books I read in that it did not follow a chronology. Instead Morgan divided her work into themes based on what she learned from doing her rather ambitious project of reading a work in English translation from every country in the world during the course of one year. Her first challenge was to determine how to define a country, which isn't as easy as it might seem. She also explored questions of what and whom to read, and how to get English translations in languages that hadn't been translated before, and how she would get books from countries without publishing industries at all. Also, exactly, how was she going to find the time to read almost 200 books, and blog about them, and do her "day job" in the course of one year. One very important lesson she learns is that just because she wishes something to exist, doesn't mean that it does. She realizes early on that she has to break a lot of the rules she set out for herself, and determines that "instead of me reading the world, it seemed the world was reading me - and forcing me to rewrite the bits with which it didn't agree."

Morgan's partner builds her a bookshelf on which to hold all the works she reads during her year of reading the world. She opts to own all the books, rather than getting any library copies. However, her affection and admiration for libraries is evident throughout. She begins her book with a loving tribute to the Cambridge University Library, and her memories of it from her days as an undergraduate. Clearly enchanted by the building and all within she describes it as a "time machine", "magical", "mythical", and "a Narnia of reading". Beyond bewitching, the library was an erotic place as well with stories of "intrepid third years having sex in obscure corners" and tales of the porn-stuffed "magnificent erection" seventeen-storey tower. She continues for several more pages using all manner of metaphor to describe the awesomeness of the place.

Morgan refers to other libraries throughout and recognizes that they will not be replaced by the internet or "googling". While the author realizes that technology was necessary for her project to come to fruition and that "reading the world in a single language would have been almost impossible thirty years ago" she also knows that hard copy books still matter, pointing out that when the Tucson-Pima (Arizona) Public Library opened a bookless branch in 2002 "users obliged the management to bring in physical books". And when she asked an unnamed academic for suggestions on underrepresented African authors "he suggested rather gruffly that I could find everything I was looking for on Google Books." To which she added "he's not right". Several pages later she comes back to the question of Google Books and kind of library it is. She quotes academic librarian and historian Robert Darnton
When businesses like Google look at libraries, they do not merely see temples of learning. The see potential assets or what they call "content", ready to be mined.
And follows up with this word from author Nicholas Carr from his book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains 
That great library that Google is rushing to create shouldn't be confused with the libraries we've known up until now. It's not a library of books. It's a library of snippets.
The chapter entitled "Encountering Roadblocks: Censorship, Propaganda, and Exiled Writers" details how getting the materials we want can be made difficult by religious zealots, governments, and fascists who believe that certain works in the hands of the masses are dangerous. She describes the attempt to "wipe out Bosnian culture by bombarding the National Library in Sarajevo in 1992" as well as the Hitler's attempt to rid Germany of all Jewish authors, and other undesirable "foreign influences". What I hadn't known about before was the Library of Burned Books, created by a resistance movement in Paris and containing copies of all the works the Nazi's burned.

Morgan also notes that censors are at work on the internet as well and that as their tools become more sophisticated it becomes harder and harder to realize that anything is even being hidden from us.

Not a beginner's "year of" book. This is the most sophisticated work of the genre I've read. Morgan has some truly deep insights, not just about herself but about reading, technology, geography, globalization, censorship, and how we see ourselves in the world.

Even after reading books from 196 countries (plus Kurdistan) Morgan recognizes that her undertaking constituted less than a drop in the bucket of what there is to read, and learn, and know. I especially liked this quote from Argentine author Alberto Manguel in a History of Reading

"We are always at the beginning of the beginning of the letter A".

This book did inspire my husband and I (no strangers to world literature) to double down and begin reading more other-than-American authors. We will begin with Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral. Others might find something of interest on this list of recently published translations.

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