The World Between Two Covers: Reading the Globe by Ann Morgan
Liveright, 2014; 336 pp
Reviewed by Winnie Khaw
Avid reader and freelance editor and writer Ann Morgan is taken aback one day while browsing her book collection; she describes how “the literary truth dawned: I was a literary xenophobe (7)”. Upon this shocking discovery, she determines to take upon herself the heroic task of reading 196 books (one for each politically recognized country) in one year, and reflects on a wide range of topics related to her quest with a book of her own, The World Between Two Covers: Reading the Globe.
Morgan’s thoughtful, general overview holds considerable charm in its supremely erudite yet amenably accessible style. Before beginning, she astutely notes that, like the positioning and sizing of the maps taught in school, “the literary world is still effectively a two-dimensional picture with a centre and extremities” (37).
She gives solid support to her observations and opinions with staggeringly extensive research—an impressive, even breathtaking range of relevant resources. All choice quotes from great minds for the most part, but this seeming brilliance leans toward the sort of long-embedded elitism. I wonder, with the text so replete with such educated references (a great deal of which, if not nearly all, are), if Morgan’s views on her reading were not somehow biased by them.
The premise of her journey I find problematic, though Morgan does acknowledge that “my rules and categorizations for the world I thought in lived in were proving to be increasingly flawed and sometimes even downright foolish.” With the decision to choose several works based on the “best” of each country, Morgan descends into the privileged pit she warns against earlier—“Top 100 lists,” award winners, etc.
Concerned about “over-egging the pudding—by which I believe she means that the amount of preparation one must do in order to understand a book foreign to the reader—Morgan oddly proceeds to thickly sow her literary fields with a continuous flow of intellectual feed in the aftermath of reading rather than before. I think, too, that Morgan, at times mired in minor details, harbors a bit of excessive worry over technical and grammar rules than immersion.
Despite the sheer, comprehensive breadth of writing Morgan has brought forth, at the end, I’m still unsure of the reasoning behind certain reading choices, an undeniably significant factor in determining her acquaintance with the literature of a particular country. I addition, an alternative, however difficult, I think does exist to reading by country—would it be possible to choose from among distinct (I say this with caution) cultural regions, peoples rather than geographical locations? On this Morgan writes that “reading books from a list of states drawn up according to the political agenda of one nation undermined the whole principle.” Though Morgan takes note of the fact, she does not dwell on it, which I think under-emphasizes its importance in the making of her reading list.
While certainly the reading was limited by practicality and realistic expectations, I admire the fact that Morgan was willing to and did indeed acquire some slight exposure at least to different countries’ literary arts, though I wonder if a mere one work, which cannot embody the whole essence of a people, colored her position of that entire culture.
Some pat conclusions at the end of chapters, such as “the world was changing. And its books were changing me.” No doubt genuine, but nevertheless rather familiar. Still, several creatively developed formed images such as in the line “ensconced as we are in our individual hall of mirrors, our literary preferences reflected endlessly back at us,” reminds the reader that what Morgan has set out to accomplish is an incredibly worthwhile endeavor in the context of global literary homogeneity.