The answer is widely.
Think diversity - not in the overused corporate virtue-signalling context - but rather in a sense of striving to consume many different opinions, expressed by people who live in a different land, age and circumstances. Travel the world through works of fiction and sprinkle a little foreignness onto your customary Anglo-Saxon fare. Take up new genres: a sci-fi adventure or a fantasy tale may well surprise you. Not convinced? Putin's latest move to give more power to State Council, a previously advisory parliamentary committee in Russia, surprised many. Interestingly, in his latest book The Secret Commonwealth: a Book of Dust Volume II, Philip Pullman described just such a move (and its consequences) by a scheming central character, Marcel Delamare. Still think children's fantasy books are not your thing?
Last year I was inspired to diversify my reading list as much as possible. Rather than choosing to read more female authors (something male readers are statistically proven guilty of ignoring - a little hint right there!) or to vary genres, I decided to focus on international fiction. I made it deliberately a little difficult: once I read an English writer, all English fiction was off the list until the next year. As a result, I simply had to seek out writers from different corners of the world. I did well. Here is a full list of countries I have "travelled" to last year:
Afghanistan (Kite Runner), Belarus (Chernobyl Prayer), Canada (Station Eleven), England (Lady Chatterley's Lover), France (Adele), Germany (Alone in Berlin), Iran (Persepolis), Ireland (The House of Names), Israel (Liar), Italy (I'm Not Scared), Japan (The Last Children of Tokyo), Kyrgyzstan (Jamilia), Latvia (Soviet Milk), Nigeria (My Sister the Serial Killer), Pakistan (Unmarriageable), Russia (Rock, Paper Scissors), Romania (The Land of Green Plums), South Korea (The Vegetarian), Sweden (Let the Right One In), Switzerland (Agnes), Syria (Death at Intervals), Turkey (Red Haired Woman) and the USA (White Houses).
That's nice stats. So what has made my reading journey so spectacular? Here are my thoughts.
I contemplated things from a different perspective.
Russians and Brits alike love reading books about the Second World War. There is, if we are ready to admit this to ourselves, a certain comfort in a familiar angle. The Nazis are sometimes referred to as simply the Germans. The baddies are based in Berlin. You get the gist. A friend of a friend recommended I read Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada, a classic novel about the grassroots resistance in 1940s Berlin. The original German title of the book is even more poignant: "Every Many Dies Alone". It is a devastating but also a humorous and a life-affirming novel which placed me in a seemingly unfamiliar setting. Yet some pages in I was nodding as I was reading about repressions, fear, neighbours who reported each other to the authorities and ordinary people being extraordinary brave.
I felt humbled by my own ignorance.
I was six years old when a nuclear reactor exploded in Chernobyl on 26 April 1986. It is now common knowledge that the Soviet authorities did everything to suppress the news and the extent of the catastrophe. Indeed, Mikhail Gorbachev, who was in power at the time, didn't make a public announcement about Chernobyl until after the 9 May, the Victory Day public holiday in the Soviet Union. Chernobyl disaster eventually made it front-page news but up until recently my understanding of it was limited. It was a tragedy for the Ukraine, which still bears scars. I had no idea though about the catastrophic effect Chernobyl had on Belarus until I read Svetlana Alexievich's brilliant oral history book Chernobyl Prayer: Voices from Chernobyl.
I have read nearly all the books by the Nobel-prize winning Belorussian author so I should have known what I was getting myself into. Her books are without exception - painful, raw, brutal and shocking. Yet nothing prepared me for Chernobyl: I was in tears first few pages in. Perhaps, I am not selling this book well. It certainly isn't a dreamy romantic novel. Just trust me when I say this: read this book. It is the oral history of humanity set in a place few of us have been to or will ever visit. Travel there with Alexievich and let her be your guide.
I felt inspired to travel to new places.
Anyone been to Pakistan? Keen to explore Lahore? I am. Unlike my previous recommendation, Unmarriageable, a retelling of Pride and Prejudice based in modern day Pakistan, is a joyous and light read. The author, Sonia Kamal, has been obsessed with Jane Austin all her life. This is her tribute to the master storyteller. Kamal stayed true to the classic plot, but she also managed to fill her work with delicious Pakistani cuisine, local customs and wonderful philological tidbits. A middle-class Pakistani who speaks better English than Urdu is apparently colloquially called a "burger", while if your English isn't up to scratch, you'd be referred to as "paratha". Wonderful, isn't it?
Ever heard raving reviews of a recently published book from several different sources and thought "I'm too cool to jump on this bandwagon, I'll let the dust settle first."? Me too. The more accolades something receives the greater my resistance. The thing is - books won't go anywhere. The good ones will stay and bring joy years later. Up until last year I have not read the Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. Thankfully, as I was browsing articles with recommendations on international fiction, I came across this bestseller and immediately ordered a copy. It deserves every praise it gets.
I read my first ever graphic novel.
I ran out of books during a weekend trip to Slovakia. Fortuitously, I stumbled upon a bookshop with an English section. It's always interesting to see what gets stocked in a fairly random place like Bratislava. Marjani Satrapi's bestselling graphic memoir, Persepolis was on the shelf. It's the most delightful read and a great way to try to understand modern Iran.
I stumbled upon a real gem.
I was opportunistically looking through a book selection in a charity shop in Chiswick when I saw a slim volume with a familiar name: Chingiz Aitmatov. Aitmatov was a Kyrgyz-born Soviet writer, who wrote both in Russian and Kyrgyz, famous for his novels, such as "A Day Lasts Longer than a Century", but I haven't read anything by him myself. I bought his novella Jamilia and was deeply touched by a beautifully told love story. Russian prose like Russian classical music has an unmistaken cadence to it. Enthralling.
I discovered people who share my passion for international fiction.
I picked up a copy of Soviet Milk by a Latvian writer Nora Ikstena at Waterstones on Piccadilly. It was beautifully bound and published by Pereine, a publishing house specialising in contemporary European fiction. I enjoyed Ikstena's story about three generations of women in Soviet Latvia, which, by the way, made my weekend trip to Riga especially enjoyable. I also learned that Pereine Press runs a subscription service where you can sign up to receive their well-curated new books. Indeed, this model allows them to make bold choices, commission new translations regularly and let readers discover books outside the mainstream market. It makes a wonderful present too!
I hope I made a convincing argument to read more widely.
"We need sometimes to escape into open solitudes, into aimlessness, into the moral holiday of running some pure hazard, in order to sharpen the edge of life, to taste hardship, and to be compelled to work desperately for a moment no matter what."
George Santayana said this about travel, but I think it relates to books too.