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

Learning Geography for Jeopardy!

You know what makes me feel dumb?  Watching Jeopardy!  Jeopardy!, the classic TV game show is now in its 30th season, and since I retired I’ve been watching it daily.  I used to watch it as a kid starting back in 1964, the year it first came on, when I got to skip school, or in the summer time.  I’m not sure why it’s only in its 30th season when it’s 50 years old – I guess they only count the Alex Trebek years, and forgot old Art Fleming.  Watching Jeopardy! makes me feel dumb because often it has contestants who look and act completely mundane, yet who just bubble over as fountains of knowledge.  Even when I know what to ask, I often can’t pronounce the names and words right.  I’d crash and burn at the game.  Still one can dream.

central_america_map

The other day my friend Mike was telling me about his research in geography teaching programs for the iPad and I wondered if I studied them if I’d be better at playing along with Jeopardy!  Geography comes up pretty often and usually I don’t know what to ask.  By the way, the contestants on Jeopardy! must formulate the proper question to the answer provided.  It’s one of the reasons why it was so hard for IBM to program Watson to play the game.  To get some idea of how to play, take this practice test.

Mike likes Maps of our World, an app for iOS by Trilliarden.  There’s a free version, which you can buy additional maps, or buy the complete collection for $8.99.   MooW tests users on finding countries and capitals, and has training sessions to help you learn first.

Marianne Wartoft has written a program called Seterra that can be downloaded or played online.  Check out the online version, it gives a good idea what the Maps of our World app is like.  For me, it quickly shows how little I know.  I’m not bad, but I’m far from Jeopardy! material.

Mike and I wondered which platform produced the best programs:  desktop, mobile or online?  I’d bet a multi-gigabyte game, sold on a DVD, designed for large high-resolution monitors, would be the stunning platform for this kind of program.  But except for the cheesy old educational games, I don’t see anything offered.  Most of the software gold rushes these days are in the mobile app territories.  That’s a shame.  Mobile apps make me think of how MP3 music is low-fi compared to FLAC files.   Who wants to study geography on tiny screens?

Sheppard Software has a nice online page of Geography Games, that include voice pronunciation of names.  For $36 a year you can get an ad free version, and if I played it a lot I would opt for that because most online applications are butt-ugly with all the ads.  In fact, with this site, some of the colorful looking controls are really ads.  Thankful, once in the game, the ads are left out.  The program could spread out to fit my 1080p screen, but it doesn’t.   Although this Sheppard Software site is homely, it does offer more features than the the two programs above, requiring a lot more learning – just look at all the content it covers just for Mexico.  And I really like it pronounces the names for me.

When Mike brought up the idea of geography learning software I pictured a program with beautiful maps and a gee-whiz dazzling interface, and none of these programs have that.  Plus, Jeopardy! often requires knowledge of rivers, seas, oceans, mountain ranges, deserts, and other natural geographical features not related to man-made features.

Ultimately, it comes down to how many facts do I want to learn.  There’s 196 countries in the world at the moment.  I wouldn’t mind knowing how to spot them on an unlabeled map.  But do I want to take the time to learn 196 capitals?  There are 457 cities around the world with over a million people.  We’re approaching a 1,000 pieces of information to learn. That’s more than I want to stuff in my head, although it seems surprisingly ignorant not to know where a million people live.

I wonder if software is even the best way to learn about geography.  Would studying an atlas or almanac be a better way to learn?  And like a sixth grader, I’m asking myself, “Why do I need to learn this?  Will I use it when I grow up?”  Evidently, except at 3:30pm M-F, when Jeopardy! is on, I might not need it at all.  Like algebra and chemistry, avoiding geography in life is pretty easy, except being geographically challenged makes you look more like a dumbass to average person, than not knowing algebra and chemistry, which most people don’t know anyway.

I think the ideal way to learn geography is by reading books set in other countries.  Eva over at A Striped Armchair has a list of the books she’s read by country.  Since Jeopardy! covers a lot of book and authors, that might kill several birds at once.  But how long would it take to read just one book for each country?

Still, I grave an interactive program that would be teach me about the world, and constantly quiz me.  There’s a reason why educational software never caught on – it’s damn hard to program slick interfaces that can compete with video games for artistry. 

When it comes to a slick geography program, Google Earth is the one to beat.  It would be neat if it had an educational component with testing.  It would be cool to click on any country and see information about that country, like what movies and novels are set there, what kind of music and art come from its cities and citizens, what are links to the web that feature the best news about the country, what are some great blogs from its citizens, and so on.

If you think about it, the potential of software and learning really hasn’t been tapped yet.  Hell, we’ve probably haven’t even reached the Model-T stage of development yet.

JWH – 4/17/14