Sunday, February 14, 2010

So much for globalization

So today I read this article from Library Stuff in my feed burner because I thought it looked cute and it lead to a map of the birthplaces of the authors who make it onto the top 250 borrowed books list in the UK.  Then suddenly it wasn't just a cute use of google maps it was a commentary on today's reading preferences, and one that made me rather sad.

I looked at the map and of the 250 books almost all of them appear to be written by writers from the UK or America.  There's 3 in Africa, 2 in Australia, 1 in New Zeland, 1 in Canada, 1 from Germany and 1 from Afghanistan.  Of those one of the African authors is Alexander McCall Smith who is of Scottish descent and attended the University of Edinburgh and currently lives in Scotland, so he's not that big of a stretch for the UK people to read.  Another, Philippa Gregory, also attended University of Edinburgh and while born in Kenya moved to England when she was two.  Her stories are mostly historical fiction set in Europe.  So, not a great case for the diverse tastes of the UK public.  Australia and New Zeland both have the union jack incorporated into their flag design, so they don't seem like they'd be a big stretch for the UK public either.  Canada and Germany are both western countries, so if we want to just look at non-western authors on the top 250 books list in the UK we are left with 2.  That's right, TWO!  Khaled Hosseini and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie who both moved to the United States in their teens, which means that unless one of the authors born in an English-speaking country decided to write something in another language there are no books in translation on the list and just the two non-western authors.  That is incredibly depressing.

I'm not just upset because of some vague feeling of the importance of diversity, I'm upset because there is a whole world of wonderful literature out there that most people don't seem to know exists or at least don't bother to read because it is different.  But that is exactly why we should read it!  Not every country has the same narrative traditions.  They don't all tell stories in the same way or see life in the same way.  Sure, it may be difficult to read a book translated from another language and culture that you are unfamiliar with at first because it's not what you're used to.  It will seem foreign, because, well it is foreign. But if you stick with it long enough a magical thing happens and eventually it won't seem foreign any more.  Eventually it may even seem natural to you.  Eventually you may gain a whole new perspective on the world, a new window to look through, a new soul.  Eventually you may find you like that different kind of narrative, and even if you don't at least you'll have been exposed to it to say whether or not you like it.  At least you'll know that way of telling a story and seeing the world exists.

Gods' sakes what is the point of reading if not to explore new worlds?  Why read, heck why even bother living if not to grow, broaden your perspective, and learn new things?  I'm not saying every book you read should challenge you and make you grow because we all need a break and simple entertainment now and then but the percentage should be higher than 2 authors on a list of 250 books.  There's a whole world of different perspectives out there! Why waste the only life you've got living in just one?

With that in mind here are some recommendations of books written by authors outside of America and UK that I've read in recent years.  Check them out, buy them, give them to your friends, blog about them.  For heaven's sake do something with them because obviously whatever we have been doing in the past is not enough.

This book, recommended to me by my friend Collin (you see recommending books to friends works! Go do it!) is hilarious.  It is full of a delicious dark humor and an utter absurdity that I just love. What is really great about this short story collection is that each one is so unique and has a slightly different tone.  Many of them are very short, too so it's a great book to read on short bus trips. The Bus Driver Who Wanted To be God & Other Stories by Etgar Keret. 

I actually liked this book better than Eva Luna. Another short story collection, but this one is completely different than the first I recommended.  These stories are much more narrative in nature and have a sense of magical realism rather than absurdism.  Still, great little stories and another new perspective. The Stories of Eva Luna by Isabelle Allende.
This book I'd recommend to those people on the list who only checked out chick lit.  It does a great job of giving the reader a taste of life in another country and another perspective while remaining light.  What I loved about this book was that even though it's from Saudi Arabia it was the similarities that stood out to me.  It follows the lives of four women and their friendships and their loves and it's a story that's familiar enough to all women to be comfortable, but with that lovely freshness and unique flair that comes from an unfamiliar version of a favorite song.  The Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa al-Sanea

One of my all-time favorite books.  I've mentioned magical realism and absurdism on this list and this one is surrealist.  If those all seem the same to you, trust me there's a difference.  That's a rant for a different blog post though.  I was able to relate to this one much easier than The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, although I enjoyed that one as well, because the protagonist is a teen coming of age rather than a man going through a mid-life crisis.  Plus, it has a librarian in it.  What more could I want? Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami.
Another book that I think even the chick-lit crowd would enjoy.  It's been a while since I read this novel, but I remember loving the way she wove the recipes into the narrative of the story.  If you like cooking, or romance stories, or both, you'll love this one! Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel.

Another magical-realism romance, so sue me.  It is valentine's day technically.  But it's not just a romance, it's a historical fiction, and an epic tale spanning the entire life of its characters, and boy howdy is there a lot of sex in it.  Trust me.  Actually this isn't one of my favorites on the list precisely because I found all the magical realism sex to be a bit of a turn off.  Come on, aren't you interested now?  Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. 
It's a murder mystery.  It's a historical fiction set in  16th century Istanbul.  It's about love.  It's about art.  It's told from the perspective of a murderer. And a corpse.  And a coin.  And the color red.  It's whatever you want it to be, baby.  It's another one of my all-time favorites, and it's not to be missed.  If you want a contemporary novel, try Snow (which is another one of my favorites, possibly because it includes actors).  If you want a more noir-style mystery try The Black Book.  Just try something by Orhan Pamuk because he's wonderful!  My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk.

You may have seen the movie.  The movie was crap.  Ignore it. Read the book.  Trust me.  It's not just about vampires and witches and warlocks and things that go bump in the night and the day.  It's about the nature of Good and Evil and Free Will.  It's about how the songs that come up on random on your ipod always match you mood.  It's about philosophy.  And it's about kicking ass and taking names.  Read it, read the sequels.  You'll get a hang of the crazy naming system eventually, I promise.  Then when you decided to tackle Anna Karenina (which you should!) you'll already be used to the names and you can enjoy it easier.  Night Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko

There, I've made it easy for you.  Read some of these, no research required.  And trust me, there's much more out there.  Really great stuff of all types.  You have no idea what you're missing, so go and explore from the comfort of your local library.  You'll thank me later (I prefer milk chocolate, with caramel but I'll take any kind really.)


  1. All the Names by Jose Saramago

  2. Inspector Imanishi Investigates by Seichō Matsumoto

    Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

    Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow and the Quiet Girl by Peter Høeg

    Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder

    The Bread of those Early Years by Heinrich Böll

  3. Definitely NightWatch!

    I've definitely fallen into this trap. Most of the people I read are from the US or UK. I don't mean for it to happen--it just seems to be the way it works out. I think part of the problem is that people are less apt to translate. I read an article somewhere about how a lot of sff writers from other countries will publish in English anyway because it has far more likelihood of getting to the big, English-speaking markets. Craig has a friend who has written a book in Finnish but he's translating it to English because it might be easier to publish that way.