Welcome to the World Book Project

007. Brazil

002. Argentina
(additional reading)
001. Chile
(additional reading)
006. Perú
005. Bolivia

2,351 pp.

In 2004, while an undergraduate studying English literature and language at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., I who had never before boarded an airplane or been to a foreign country despite my lifetime of wanderlust, my love of maps, and my desire to understand the six billion disharmonious voices on earth hatched a plan to delve inside every culture by pinpointing its quintessential work of literature and then reading said book.

This adventurous plan posed many obstacles.

Simply compiling a list of countries was an early, unexpected hurdle rife with political turmoil.  The 192 United Nations member states were a decent starting point, but what about the Republic of China on Taiwan, independently run from mainland China since 1949?  What about the writers and poets of Palestine, geographically usurped by Israel in 1948?  What about the cultures of the Roma and the Kurds, who have never had a landmass to call their own, and what about foreign territories like Puerto Rico and Greenland, autonomous communities such as the Basque Country in Spain, breakaway countries like Somaliland involved in civil war, and newly formed states such as Kosova?  What about peaceful regions and peoples within countries' borders that, for what it's worth, are a bit unique from--though still parts of--their home countries' national spirits--the Hawaiians, say, or the Franco-Quebecois?  Surely all those cultures would have to be included, too?

You can see the slippery slope I slid down.  We can separate the French Canadians from the Anglo Canadians, and we can separate the female French Canadians from the male French Canadians, and we can separate the lesbian French Canadians from the straight female French Canadians, and... eventually there are 6.8 billion distinct voices, languages, and cultures, not even accounting for our human nature of change, evolution, and contradiction.

I had to draw the line somewhere, and so while one book may never truly capture the spirit of a nation, a people, and a century, I take pride in the fact that something is better than nothing.  I'll never be able to read all the books on earth, much to my disappointment.

Next was the lengthy problem of researching and choosing books, and it could have never been accomplished without the resources of Wikipedia, Google Books, LibraryThing, Amazon, the Library of Congress website, WorldCat, my friend Katie Ash, and my former professor Dr. Richard Gaughran, who encouraged me in my early development of this plan.

But how does one choose a book that captures the totality of a nation?  I needed to lay some ground rules.

The first one, an important though unfortunate one, was that the book had to be either written or English or translated into English, given my own affliction of monolingualism (which I hope to cure one day).  That's an unfair restriction and one I regret--many great authors have never been translated into English, and some have been translated poorly.  On occasion a superior book has been set aside for a more popular book that has been published in my tongue.  My hope is that the marketability, availability, and desire for foreign literature in translation will grow in my lifetime and that improved technology in the publishing field will aid this.

Secondly, I wanted to give priority to novels before short stories, poetry collections, or plays.  This is also unfair, as the novel is a Western development of recent centuries, yet my mind is most receptive to fiction, and exploring the grand themes of patriotism, religion, language, gender, politics, and history can best be done in the vast, permissive structure of a novel.  Some cultures, however, have ancient histories of songwriting, oral storytelling, drama, biography, and lyricism, while for them the novel form of expression remains primitive and unhelpful.  I acknowledge this and respect this, and a crude novel has never been chosen over a superior poet.

The twentieth and twenty-first centuries were given priority, though some works date back farther.

And finally, the thematic elements.  I wanted books that were written by their people and for their people, preferably in a common and native language.  A citizen doesn't need to be native born to understand and appreciate a country, but there are obvious differences between writers who inhabit their adopted lands and travel writers who pass through.  Occasionally I have had to resign myself to these travel writers merely because the literatures of some countries remain unpublished.   And, of course, the penguins of Antarctica haven't yet mastered penmanship.  There are some edited anthologies of voices and some insightful ethnologues on my journey.

But the majority of the works here are fictional novels dealing with issues of recent history, minority rights, class divides, relationships with the land, the power of gods, the abusive power of godlike men, the differences between men and women, the fundamental rights of a person, the expectations of a life, and the ever-flowing tide of generations and history.  Some of these books were or are banned in their native lands.  Some of these books got their authors in trouble.  Some of these books have been misunderstood, misused, and underappreciated.

I favored realism over fantasy, though there is a heaping spoonful of magic, and recent events over ancient history, though history is always present.

And when presented with countries that possess a vast corpus of national literature, I had to use my own sometimes arbitrary judgment (as well as my own interests in what I wanted to read) to narrow the choices.

To better understand the problems I faced, try to think of all the books you've read from your own country and try to choose the one that's most definitive, most important, best written, the one that pinpoints exactly what it means to be a So-and-so.  It's not easy, and the book I've chosen from the United States isn't even one of my very favorite books, though I think it says the most about my country's development in the past hundred years.  If you're wondering why there's no Shakespeare or whoever on this list, take that into consideration.

And so, with my list nearly complete (to my dismay, I can find no published writers from the UN member state micronations Andorra, San Marino, or Monaco--surely these small lands have produced some wordsmiths in their long and illustrious histories?), I begin the task of acquiring, reading, analyzing, and understanding the many books of our planet.

I do so humbly and graciously, seeking to offend no one through preferential treatment, seeking not to conquer the world from my couch but only to reach out and understand the people I may never be able to meet.

If you would like to contact me with any assistance, queries, complaints, or encouragement, please do so at bibliotrekking@gmail.com .

                                                                stephen d. kelly
                                                                June 2009