World Book Day can Become a Habit for Life
This Saturday marks the third World Book Day since I finished reading the world. At least, that’s what I believed I had done when, on 31 December 2012, I completed my quest to work my way through a book from every country on Earth.
I had spent 366 days reading and blogging about literature from all 195 UN-recognized states (plus Taiwan and one extra territory). During that time, I was helped by the planet’s book lovers, who sent me recommendations, advice, books, and even unpublished translations and manuscripts to allow me to access works from countries with no commercially available literature in English.
When the year ended, I thought the project was over. I assumed my blog would go dead and all the people who had followed it would wander off to new things. Besides, I had work to do: I needed to finish writing Reading the World, my book inspired by the experience. My time talking online about reading was done.
But the world had other ideas. In the weeks and months after I published my last blog post, I continued to receive comments and messages. Although I was no longer appealing for book suggestions, people kept telling me about titles they thought I should read. They shared their reactions to my reviews and described literature initiatives in their regions.
Time went by, but the messages showed no sign of stopping. With them, came invitations to take part in projects and events. I spoke to gaggles of people in yurts, students in schools and universities, and audiences in big auditoriums. I shared stages with writers and translators whose work I had long admired. I got to stand in the red circle at TED Global. And – I still feel disappointed when I think about this – I spent eight hours sitting in Gatwick airport when a strike by French air-traffic controllers meant I missed my flight to go and speak at the Club des Résidents Etrangers de Monaco.
But even more amazing than the opportunities that came my way as a result of the project were the stories people shared with me about the things it had inspired them to do. I’ve lost count of the number of readers around the planet who have contacted me to say that, having heard about my blog, they have set out to read their own very particular worlds.
I know of people attempting to source children’s books and poetry collections from every nation, and others trying to work their way around the literature of particular regions or continents. There are those using international sporting tournaments as a basis for drawing up their reading lists. I’ve even heard from one bibliophile intent on tracking down a horror story from every nation – a particularly dark quest, as he himself admits.
Then there are people going further still, using the idea of reading the world as an impetus to change their communities’ relationship to books. Not long ago, I heard from a group of students in Mexicali, Mexico, who had created El Librero Communitario, a bookcase placed at a bus stop giving away second-hand titles to those who might not be able to buy reading matter. Meanwhile, a bookseller in Kerala, India, tells me that he plans to stock at least one title from every country in response to my project. A few weeks back, a teacher in Guangdong province, China, set students an assignment to leave a comment on my blog telling me what they think about reading. Their observations are still coming through almost every day.
Many of the interactions I’ve had have been very thought-provoking. When a teenager in Kabul messaged me earlier this year to say he was very eager to read international literature and to ask my advice as there are no bookshops where he lives and online retailers don’t deliver to Afghanistan, it brought home to me quite how big a challenge reading the world still is for people in many parts of the globe. Luckily, I was able to connect him with the Asia Foundation, which arranged for some titles to be sent to an NGO in his neighborhood – but it’s a lot of trouble to go to every time you want a book.
More than three years after I thought I’d finished, I’m still reading the world and blogging about its literature. The huge numbers of wonderful international stories I’ve encountered both on the page and in person have taught me many things. But one of their most powerful lessons is this: when you open yourself up to humanity’s stories, you build connections that stretch off in directions you can’t even begin to imagine.
Once you get involved in that conversation, you discover that World Book Day no longer ends after 24 hours and reading the world doesn’t stop after a year. It becomes a habit for life.