The Great [Name of Country] Novel

At the request of a reader I can never turn down*, I spent a couple of hours going through my Goodreads list of books I can remember reading for books that a) can help the reader learn more about a country** and b) are actually written by someone from that country. Finding books that satisfy the second condition are hard enough when you’re looking for titles not written by Americans or Brits. Finding books that satisfy the first condition turned out to be devilishly difficult.


Still from the 2006 film, The Painted Veil, based on the W. Somerset Maugham novel.

The longer I scrolled through my list and the longer I hunted for world literature reading lists, the more I started to wonder if it was even possible to write a book that could capture a nation. As I put books on the list I was compiling, I was tempted to add a few American novels (like The Barbarian Nurseries or some Flannery O’Connor). But while these are novels that depict American life, they only show American life in certain places at certain times. I know this because I’m an American who paid attention in history class. I also know enough Russian history to know that the books I suggested for that country depict, similarly, specific locations in Russia at specific points in Russian history.

The thought that I could find books that can give even the most general of top-level views of a country just shows how ignorant I am of global history. Further, if a book did try to stick to the overview, I’m fairly sure it wouldn’t be very good. I know I’ve criticized books in the past for not making use of their settings; these books might be set anywhere, any when, for all we know. The idea that a book can encapsulate a country, in retrospect, is a little insulting to other countries. If Americans can’t agree on a book (or even a short list) of Great American novels, it’s ridiculous to expect another county (most of which have been around a lot longer than the US) to do so.

Of course, I’m not going to abandon the project. (After all, I’m putting this list together for my mom.) But I think I’m going to have to add the caveat that these books are just a taste of life in other countries, in other times, and just keep adding more and more books from all over the world.

* My mom. Most librarians I know, including myself, carry on being librarians when we’re off the clock. We can’t help it.
** I wasn’t surprised to learn that I’ve read a lot of books by American, United Kingdom, and Russian writers. I was surprised to learn how many Nigerian writers I’ve been reading in the last year or so. No brownie points for me, though, as these are only four nations out of almost 200.


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