Quite a few people have asked me how I made my list, so I want to write a little bit about it (a task that took several months and which I found immensely enjoyable, possibly more so than actually reading the books). Fellow book geeks and lovers of lists, read on for a (probably overly detailed) insight into my process.
I started, like many other people before me, with the idea of reading one book—the best book, or the most-popular, or maybe just a book—from each country. I quickly realized that this was impractical (how do you choose the “best” book for each country? What’s the best English book that’s ever been written? The Canterbury Tales? Great Expectations? 1984? Harry Potter? And going by the most popular—even if I could find a definitive rating like the number of sales within a given country—would result in lots of Thorn Birds and not much Voss, exactly the opposite of what I wanted. As for just picking a book at random, who’s to say that it would be any good?) and also that I would be missing out on a lot. As soon as I started making the list I found lots of books that excited me, that I wanted to read, and I didn’t want to have to narrow them down to one. Then, too, I had a vague idea that I might learn something about the countries of the world, and reading a single book would only offer me a narrow, biased, contextless window onto each country. The only Ukrainian book I’ve read at this juncture is Andrey Kurkov’s Death and the Penguin, which is a wonderful, dark, absurdist book, but it doesn’t allow me to draw many conclusions about Ukrainian culture. And I realized there was no reason to limit my list–I’m not answering to anyone, I’m just doing this for fun (or my twisted idea of fun), so why not make the list as long as I want? Why not make up the rules as I go along?
So I decided to try to create a literature survey, to be as representative as possible while still retaining the remote possibility of actually being able to read the whole list before I die. I wanted to try to read each country’s most important, most well-regarded literature; the books that would be in the high school curriculum, the books that have won the country’s top literary prizes. But it was also important to me to try to access a country’s non-dominant cultures. I have made an effort to include works by women, by marginalized ethnic groups and minorities, and by indigenous peoples. For the US, because I grew up there and I read most of the “great works” in high school and college, I have primarily focused on Native American and African-American literature, which tend to be massively underrepresented in our educational system.
For most countries I started with either Google or Wikipedia. Depending on the page’s author, a country’s national literature page might be a stand-alone entry, or a section of the “culture” page, or just a few lines on the main entry for the country. They can be frustratingly vague, sometimes without a single work or author mentioned by name, or overwhelmingly detailed lists of hundreds of writers or more. Often a page would have dozens of writers listed but following up each name would yield few works available in translation. Sometimes there wouldn’t be an entry for a country’s literature, but only a list of writers (I found the list of African writers by country absolutely invaluable). Sometimes Wikipedia had nothing to say on the subject of a country’s literary scene, and I would have to hunt further afield—plunging down a google rabbit hole, finding local websites devoted to a country’s literature or scholarly articles that might provide one or two difficult-to-find titles. Of the titles on my list I would estimate that at least 20% will prove impossible to find in a language I can read.
I asked my facebook friends to tell me what they read in school or what they would recommend from their countries of origin, and added those to the list (I have an awesome international group of friends, plus several literature scholars, like my aunt with the PhD in Japanese Literature, who gave me lots of useful suggestions). When I found myself really stumped I sometimes turned to Ann Morgan’s excellent blog, A Year of Reading the World (now available in book form as The World Between Two Covers). Because her list was powered entirely by reader suggestions, she was able to turn up some titles for countries that proved a dead-end for me. I added those as well.
Another useful tool was Goodread’s list pages. It seems like most countries or world regions have at least one literature buff devoted enough to create a “best of” list, and I added the top suggestions from those lists as well. Goodreads was, if anything, even more likely than Wikipedia to turn up untranslated works, but at least it was a jumping-off point.
As I got farther in, some other categories of works suggested themselves. Many countries that were colonized by Europeans in the last few centuries did not have a written tradition prior to their invasion, so the best hope of accessing older works is to find oral epics or folk tales that have been transcribed. I tried to find books of folk tales (if possible by an author from the country in question, but sometimes recorded and translated by anthropologists or colonists). Many countries—however old their written traditions may be—have a “national epic” and Wikipedia has a great list of these. I added them to the list. I went through the list of Nobel Literature Laureates and added them to the list as well if I hadn’t read their work before (I also left off some of the poets, if I had enough authors from that country already–and I generally did, because the Nobel Prize in Literature is distributed very unevenly among the nations of the world–because I’d prefer to spend my time reading fiction). Denmark is obliging enough to have an official, government-sanctioned cultural canon of eleven books, so I added those too. And then there were a few books that I already had on my shelves, or that were given to me as gifts, or that I borrowed from my sister (who read a fair amount of Caribbean and African literature in her high school French classes), so I figured, since I have them already, why not add them to the list as well? And since I started the project I’ve kept my eye out for international authors when I’m browsing in second-hand bookstores and sale racks; I’ve added a few things this way too (such as Ovidia Yu’s Aunty Lee’s Deadly Specials, which I bought because an advance copy of it was on sale for $1 at the Piedmont Library, and a Singaporean cozy mystery was too hard to pass up at that price).
You can see how I ended up with two thousand books.