The geography of books

Over at Conversational Reading, Scott Esposito asks two great questions:

Two simple questions: Wikipedia lists 243 countries in the world. How many countries have you read books from? (I can think of one man who’s gonna kick ass at this.) And would it be possible to read a book from every single one of them?

Simple, my ass. Just as deciding how many countries there are in the world is an impossible task, so is deciding from which countries certain writers come from. As you’ll see below, I call V.S. Naipaul a Trinidadian writer, even though the acerbic Anglophile wouldn’t claim it as his, because the book I cite is clearly autobiographical and based on his life in Trinidad and Tobago. At this point, should we consider Salman Rushdie an Indian writer, even though he hasn’t lived in India in decades and he writes in English? Alexander McCall Smith was raised in Zimbabwe, writes his most famous books about Botswana, but lives in Scotland.

And then there are writers who are decidedly American, but who write most prominently about life in other countries. Nathan Englander’s story collection For the Relief of Unbearable Urges is decidedly Israel-centric, but he didn’t actually move there until after the publication of the book. Absurdistan’s Gary Shteyngart admits to having trouble deciding whether he’s Russian or American—the longing for New York City (where Shteyngart lives) is a key element of Absurdistan’s charm, and both of his novels are as much about Russia as they are about America.

The problematic nature of the questions—I’m not even gonna touch the second one—is part of why they’re great. I spent the last hour of work thinking about what I’ve read over the past five years, and noticing trends in my reading. One thing I’ve noticed is how little poetry I still read, even after attempts to read more of it. Another thing is how rarely I read nonfiction books in their entirety—I read reams of criticism online but not full books. I haven’t taken stock of what I read and how in some time.

Anyway, what’s below is a list, in alphabetical order by country, of books I’ve read. For our purposes, I’m including long-form comics. I’ve only listed one book per country—the first book from a country that popped into my head.

Argentina: Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges
Australia: Eat Me by Linda Jaivin
Belgium: lots and lots of Tintin books by Hergé, so let’s go with my perennial favorite—The Calculus Affair
Canada: The Beggar Maid by Alice Munro
Chile: 100 Love Sonnets by Pablo Neruda
China: The Landscape of Mind by Jianqing Zheng
Czech Republic: The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
Egypt: The Search by Naguib Mahfouz
England: White Teeth by Zadie Smith
France: The Elementary Particles by Michel Houllebecq
Haiti: Minty Alley by C.L.R. James
India: A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth
Iran: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
Ireland: Ulysses by James Joyce
Italy: If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino
Japan: After the Quake by Haruki Murakami
Mexico: Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel
New Zealand: Hicksville by Dylan Horrocks
Nigeria: Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Norway: You Can’t Get There from Here by Jason
Russia: Ivan Petrov: Russia through a Shot Glass by C.S. Walton—technically, Walton isn’t Russian, but the book’s essentially edited interviews with a Russian
Spain: The Extended Dream of Mr. D by Max
Trinidad & Tobago: Miguel Street by V.S. Naipaul
U.S.A.: too many to count

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Atlanta, GA. He is the co-author (with Daniel Couch) of Bob Mould's Workbook (Bloomsbury, 2017). His work has been published in The Quarterly Conversation,, Bookslut (RIP), The Comics Journal, The Baseball Chronicle, and other periodicals. Twitter: @walter_biggins.
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