How Much Can We Learn About the World Traveling by Books?

By James Wallace Harris, Saturday, February 21, 2015

Ann Morgan has a new book out in England, Reading the World: Confessions of a Literary Explorer, due out in America May 4th, as The World Between Two Covers: Reading The Globe. Her book is based on her blog, A Year of Reading the World, where she created a reading challenge to read one book from each of the 196 countries. Here are the books she read. Now, don’t expect her book to be a retelling of the web posts, as she points out in her blog. It’s about the experience of the project.

worldbetweentwocoversreading-the-world

I’ve often thought of doing something like this. Like Ann Morgan, 99.9% of my reading comes from The United States, Canada, Australia or Great Britain. I’ve encountered this project before, over at A Striped Armchair, where super-bookworm Eva routinely reads books from around the world. It’s an inherently fascinating reading challenge, but as the review at the Telegraph points out, it’s full of flaws. How much would non-English speaking people learn about America from reading Jonathan Franzen or Philip Roth? Of course, Morgan wasn’t seeking a course in geography, but getting a sampling of the global literary landscape.

But what if we were trying to get a big picture of what life on planet Earth was like? What if you read 196 nonfiction books about all the countries of the world, wouldn’t that be a fascinating education? I just read Deep Down Dark by Héctor Tobar, about the Chilean mining disaster, but I really didn’t learn much about Chile. Some, but not much. I know lots of travelers who believe you have to visit a country to know it, but I’m not sure if that’s true either, not in the complete sense I’m talking about. Seeing the airport, a few tourist destinations, hotels and restaurants, doesn’t really tell you about the history, politics, social structures, economics, and on on. What about the news? I’ve been seeing a lot about Egypt in the news for the last couple of years, but hasn’t taught me much about the country either.

Ann Morgan set aside a year to learn about the world by reading novels. That’s very impressive, but more work than I want to commit to. I don’t even want to read 196 nonfiction books about the countries of the world. However, I wonder if I could tour the world in a year by watching documentaries? I’d have to watch four a week for a year, and that’s fairly reasonable. I wonder if Netflix has one on every country? Or would I even need to do that? What if I just read the Wikipedia entry for a country each night? Look at this one for Afghanistan. It’s incredibly informative. It’s so interesting, it makes me want to read a book about the country and watch documentaries, especially about its Paleolithic and Neolithic times. Of course, this makes me think I should just become a regular reader of National Geographic.

This concept of getting to know the world through books, either fiction or nonfiction, is a wonderful idea to think about. Here’s a list of countries at Wikipedia, it will give you the scope of the project. Even if you don’t start reading books, reading a Wikipedia article about a country now and then off your smartphone could be an excellent way to virtually travel the world.

JWH

6 thoughts on “How Much Can We Learn About the World Traveling by Books?”

  1. Just reading 196 books was a triumph! My usual annual read comes to about 150 or so (120-175) and I really don’t want to read more – I get too rushed about it.

    I’ve read a lot of books about different countries – some have more info about the country than others. And then too, how much different is the US than Canada? The border is mostly man-made. On the other hand, books about Russia or Zimbabwe or Argentina or Malaysia can be very different – but it depends on the book.

    I love well written travelogues but most of them can get pretty dry – not every travelogue is like Siberia by Ian Frazier – lol.

    1. I suppose we could divide up the problem to have fewer books to read. Right now there are two major political hot-spots in the world – radical Muslim revolutionaries and the civil war in the Ukraine that might escalate. I would think learning more about those places and people would be the most useful at the moment. On the other hand, we could be more positive, and choose to read about the countries in the world that are the most successful for various reasons.

  2. A bit of travel might help you. Real travel. And some reading is foundational, but it’s preparation for the real thing. Better you should read about the benefits of travel and then do some. The heart thing, loss of the job, the many issues… just being stuck in February; they’ll get anyone down and you’re the last to know. Stuck trying to think your way out.
    I may be the last kid to have read Richard Halliburton, and left home to see it all, and honestly, the answer to your question is the same as if you had asked, “How much can we learn about the world from cook books?” Or “Fifty Shades of Grey”
    You sound like you are close to crisis. Put the Ulysses down.
    This might help>
    https://thepiratebay.se/torrent/11716816/The_Dirty_Little_Kindle_Book_Of_Sex_Quotes_(Epub)_Gooner

    BillyPilgrim

    1. Actually, Billy I am planning some travel. I’ve been exercising, walking and dieting, to get into shape for some trips. I have back problems that hold me back, but I’m working on getting better, because I do want to do some traveling.

      1. Take a copy of Ulysses to Ireland. Seriously. You can’t believe how passionate they are about that book. The Micks will take you into their hearts

      2. One of the members of our Ulysses book club has done just that, and I think a number of times. She has wonderful photos of her trips and is promoting such travel to all in the group. Where have you traveled Billy?

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