At the beginning of the year I made a pact with myself.
No matter how difficult, I was going to pull a Phileas Fogg and travel around the globe—witnessing everything from Mumbai to Singapore, and San Francisco to Hong Kong.
The only difference? While Phileas Fogg boarded a steamer boat to circumnavigate the Earth in 80 days, I planned to traverse the globe through another route: books on the shelves (no passport required).
I scoured the internet for the best recommendations, looking for authors from all 195 countries to date (figuring the best way to experience a culture would be through the eyes of a local). While I recognize that one single perspective is by no means a monolith to represent the culture and country as a whole, I decided it was the best place to start.
Some countries had dozens upon dozens of recommended authors, overwhelming my list of possibilities. Others such as Madagascar (which had one of its novels translated into English for the first time as recently as 2017) proved more difficult.
After compiling my list and setting up a tracking sheet (which you can use for your own Read Around the World Challenge here), I embarked on my own personal adventure: 195 countries, 195 authors, 195 books (and way more than 195 days to complete it).
My journey led me from a particularly significant kite-fighting tournament in Kabul, Afghanistan that related to loss of innocence, family ties, and loyalty, all the way to a parallel universe in Tokyo, Japan known as 1Q84.
Each book, whether fiction or not, revealed a unique lens into the psyche of the culture, a glimpse into the beliefs, ideas, loves, and life of a country currently beyond my reach.
Though one day I’d love to visit all 195 of these places to see it for myself, for now these books provide me with the opportunity to witness them through the eyes of others, and learn about their culture in a whole new way.
Ready to Start Your Own Read Around The World Challenge?
While I’m nowhere near finishing, I’ve already discovered dozens of authors whom I now consider to be some of my favorites. To help inspire your own reading around the world adventure, I’ve compiled my top 10 favorite picks so far from across the globe.
Afghanistan – The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
Set in Kabul, Afghanistan, The Kite Runner tells the story of two boys, the changing of a regime, and an unlikely arc of redemption. Hosseini’s poetic style of writing keeps readers captivated and dazed until the very end.
Australia – The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Although this book doesn’t take place in Australia, it’s written by Australian author Zusak. The Book Thief is a must-read, modern-day classic about a girl in World War II era Germany. The narrator, Death, weaves a wonderfully whimsical and also tragic depiction of life, ultimately inspiring gratitude for anything and everything that is good.
Brazil – The Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo
Most closely fitting into the genre of spiritual fiction, The Alchemist follows the tale of a young man in pursuit of his dream residing in northern Africa. An international bestseller and quick read, The Alchemist is an inspirational novel for anyone chasing their dream.
Canada – The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Similar to The Book Thief and The Alchemist, The Handmaid’s Tale technically takes place in a location outside of the author’s original home (set in dystopian New England rather than Canada), but it’s still worthy of praise for a Read Around the World Challenge. Posing the question of what would happen if women’s rights regressed, Atwood paints a harrowing depiction of the future that might not be too far from reality.
Chile – House of Spirits by Isabel Allende
Closely paralleling the events of Chile’s actual history, House of Spirits gives incredible insight into the life leading up to General Pinochet’s coup d’état in 1973. Infused with magical realism, the lines between fantasy and reality are beautifully blurred in a way that makes this book impossible to put down.
Ghana – Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi tells the multi-generational tale of the descendants of two half-sisters born in Ghana. Written by a BIPOC author and covering everything from the war on drugs and Jim Crow laws in the U.S. to missionaries and cocoa farming in Ghana, it’s a riveting, beautiful, and tragic tale from an all too often overlooked perspective.
Japan – 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
Set in a dystopian Tokyo, 1Q84 has everything a novel could want—religious cults, a mysterious girl, an unshakeable love, and a town full of cats. Don’t let the sheer page count scare you off. Once you start, you won’t be able to stop.
Nigeria – Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The less-known debut novel of the author of We Should All Be Feminists, Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus recounts the story of a family in Enugu, Nigeria, and revolves around the complex themes of religion, family, and Nigerian politics.
Sweden – A Man Called Ove by Frederik Backman
Quite possibly one of my favorite novelists, Frederik Backman yet again transforms the most curmudgeonly of characters and turns him into a star. Centered around Ove, a quirky, recently-retired man resistant to change, Backman’s story of growth and love will warm any heart.
United States of America – Beloved by Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison’s bestselling Beloved is a riveting read depicting the life of Sethe, a former slave, and her relationship with a supposed ghost that trails her. Hauntingly beautiful, Beloved explores the multi-generational effects of trauma and loss, ultimately leading to the discovery of the self.
Any recommendations of books you love?
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Photo: Dana Drosdick