Ann Morgan: What Can You Learn From Reading The World?

Apr 27, 2018
Originally published on May 1, 2018 4:42 pm

Part 4 of the TED Radio Hour episode Comfort Zone.

About Ann Morgan's TED Talk

In 2012, Ann Morgan set out to read a book from nearly 200 different countries around the world. She describes how that experience challenged her limits and tested her assumptions.

About Ann Morgan

Ann Morgan is a writer, who also works at the University of Kent as a Royal Literary Fund fellow. She is the author of several books, including The World Between Two Covers: Reading the Globe.

Morgan graduated from Cambridge University with a degree in English literature, and a master's in creative writing at University of East Anglia (UEA) in Norwich. She also has a postgraduate diploma from the London School of Journalism.

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, Comfort Zones - ideas about the ways we can push ourselves to become better, to grow and to explore new places even if it's just by reading a book.

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ANN MORGAN: Storytelling is a shared human impulse. We all do it in one way or another. And that's an incredibly inspiring thing - that we all want to share our stories.

RAZ: This is Ann Morgan. And a couple of years ago, Ann was in graduate school for journalism when she started a blog.

MORGAN: Called "A Year of Reading Women" to spend some time reading books by women writers because I realized at the time most of the books I'd read - and indeed most of the books I'd studied on my degree course - were written by men. Now, when I was doing this blog, I got very few people reading it. But this one guy, he came, and he left a comment on the blog saying that there was a book he really wanted me to read by an Australian writer. And it was "Cloudstreet" by Tim Winton. And I was thinking, OK, sounds great. But I'll have to read it next year because obviously I'm reading women this year, and he's not a woman.

And so I said, well, maybe I'll do a blog next year. I hadn't really thought about it. But it would need to have some kind of angle. So he said, well, what about books from different countries? And my first response was, what? Who does he think I am? Doesn't he know that I'm, you know, a really cultured person? What kind of a Philistine does he take me for? And then I looked at my bookshelves, and I realized actually - hang on - I didn't read that books from that many different countries. In fact, pretty much all the books on my book shelves were written in English - Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton, Jane Austen, Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift - but not much beyond that and certainly very little that had been translated from other languages.

And that came as a real shock to me because I thought, hey, this is crazy. You know, there's this whole other world out there that I've closed my eyes to - that I've not even realized was there. And suddenly it was as though someone had switched on the lights, and all these invisible bookshelves that had been hidden in the dark lit up and stretched off as far as the eye can see. And all these stories that I just hadn't even thought were there suddenly started to claimeth my intention. And so I thought, well, what can I do?

And 2012 was shaping up to be a very international year for the U.K. because we had the Olympics coming and the Queen's Jubilee. And there was a lot of excitement about people from all over the world coming to visit. And so I thought, well, that would be a good year to do a very international reading project. So I thought, why don't I do a year of reading the world and, rather than simply reading books from different countries, see if I can read a book from every country?

RAZ: Ann Morgan picks up the story from the TED stage.

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MORGAN: After I'd worked out which of the many different lists of countries in the world to use for my project, I ended up going with the list of U.N. recognized nations, to which I added Taiwan, which gave me the title of 196 countries. After I'd worked out how to fit reading and blogging about roughly four books a week around working five days a week, I then had to face up to the fact that I might not even be able to get books in English from every country. Only around 4.5 percent of the literary works published each year in the U.K. are translations. And the figures are similar from much of the English-speaking world although the proportion of translated books published in many other countries is a lot higher.

Four point five percent is tiny enough to start with. But what that figure doesn't tell you is that many of these books will come from countries with strong publishing networks and lots of industry professionals primed to go out and sell those titles to English language publishers. So for example, although well over a hundred books are translated from French and published in the U.K. each year, most of them will come from countries like France or Switzerland. French-speaking Africa, on the other hand, will rarely ever get a look in. The upshot is that there are actually quite a lot of nations that may have little or even no commercially available literature in English. Their books remain invisible to readers of the world's most published language.

But when it came to reading the world, the biggest challenge of all for me was the fact that I didn't know where to start. Having spent my life reading almost exclusively British and North American books, I had no idea how to go about sourcing and finding stories and choosing them for much of the rest of the world. I couldn't tell you how to source a story from Swaziland. I wouldn't know a good novel from Namibia. There was no hiding it. I was a clueless literary xenophobe. So how on earth was I going to read the world?

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RAZ: Yeah, I mean, as you started to look for these books from around the world that were unfamiliar or challenging to you, how did you even get them because you can't - I'm assuming you can't just go to Amazon and type some of these books in, right? So what did you do?

MORGAN: So I had - because I had lots of people leaving comments, initially I sort of followed the leads - the suggestions that people made. But then when it came to countries that didn't have books that you could buy easily online or in bookshops, I had to get creative. So the most challenging of all the countries, when I was trying to find literature, was Sao Tome and Principe, which is a small African island nation off the west coast of Africa. And Portuguese is one of the official languages there. But - although there are books published, there was nothing that I could find to buy in English translation. I really wasn't sure that I was going to manage to find anything from there.

And then one day my husband said, well, why don't you see if you can get people to translate something for you? And I thought, who's going to want to do that? That's insane. You know, that's a huge amount of work to ask someone to do. But what was amazing was that within a week of me putting a call out on social media for anyone who could speak Portuguese who might be willing to volunteer some time, I had more people than I could actually involve. And I found this collection of short stories by a woman who was born in Sao Tome and Principe. And I bought enough copies to be able to send one out to each of the translators and divided it up, asked each of them to take a few of the short stories on. And they all stuck to their words and sent back their translations. And within six weeks, I had the entire book to read.

RAZ: Wow, amazing. So I mean, you were a very well-read person but reading in a certain context. Probably a lot of the books took place in Europe against a European backdrop, landscape, history. So you could contextualize these more or less, you know, with ease. These books must've been really challenging for you. A lot of these books must have really pushed you to your limits.

MORGAN: Yeah, absolutely. There were a lot of assumptions that we take for granted when we look at the world and when we tell stories and assumptions that we make about what our - the person on the other side of the story will think. And these assumptions don't hold true when you're looking at stories from very different cultures where you're not the target audience. So those can be assumptions that range from anything from morality and ideas about what's acceptable when it comes to sexuality through to religious beliefs through to gender roles.

We don't even necessarily realize those assumptions are there because, for example, when I was reading stories from one of the 70-plus countries where homosexuality is still illegal, I found myself coming up against assumptions that I didn't share. And that was a challenge. But vice versa, I found that by reading books that were built on very different ideas about what was normal and what was acceptable, I started to see some of the narrowness in the way that I looked at the world and in the kind of stories that I was used to reading as well. So it worked both ways.

RAZ: Yeah. I mean, you must have just become smarter about the world, exposed to ideas that you never even knew about.

MORGAN: I think certainly more conscious of the complexity and the fact it's so easy to make assumptions about situations that we know very little about and - particularly for those of us who speak English, we have this tendency. But I think everyone does. We all think of ourselves as being at the center of our own universe, of course, because we're all at the center of our film, you know. We all live in the middle of our life.

But actually going out there and reading stories that are written by people who live in very different universes and live at the center very different worlds shows you how different the worlds out there are and how your own world is flawed and small in a way that, perhaps, you didn't realize before.

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RAZ: Ann Morgan - her blog, A Year Of Reading The World is now a book. It's called "The World Between Two Covers: Reading The Globe." You can see her full talk at ted.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.