What international publishing and populism has in common / by Emilia Morano-Williams

All the books I read during my Erasmus year

On Wednesday I receive an email from Publisher’s Weekly recapping international book deals. The brief doesn’t put new books on your must-read list but it opens up the world of non-English writing and how 21st century business facilitates cultural exchange.

Or doesn’t facilitate as the rise of populism would suggest. Business, along with social media, encases us in monotone, monolingual, and monoculture bubbles. Although developers have devised new apps to help us act back, these programs only retrigger the same social media algorithms. Instead, we need to be active in seeking out new voices to puncture our cultural cocoons.

It’s not news that books let us encounter new voices—but what is new is the urgency with which we must undertake these meetings. A few years ago, a British woman made headlines when she endeavored to read a book from every country during a single year. While we can marvel at her dedication to turning pages and sourcing unpublished manuscripts from Vanuatu, the average reader’s lifestyle cannot support such an extreme project. But that doesn’t mean that bibliophiles can’t seek books beyond their borders.

The rise of international publishing houses such as Europa Editions and Archipelago Books—aided in part by their respective superstar authors Elena Ferrante and Karl Ove Knausgaard—has made reading foreign authors easier. But just because we marvel at 1960s Naples doesn’t prevent us from bobbing back to Jonathon Franzen’s more familiar world. What about Can Xue or Aravind Adiga? Could we find a friend in the first African to visit Greenland or in a Chernobyl survivor? Reading international texts might be easy, but we still need to make the effort to continue encountering unconventional perspectives.

Receiving the international deals brief from Publisher’s Weekly reminds me that the world of books extends well beyond what I can understand. Dutch writers produce titles that rival James Patterson and Catalan texts boast audiences just as captive as our Anglophone ones. It’s a worthy reminder in a cultural environment where embracing global society has increasingly become a political act.

But like marching doesn’t satisfy our duties as active and engaged citizens, reading the international deals round-up won’t satisfy our duties as engaged readers. We need to read these stories and assimilate them into our worldview. We need to beg our local bookstore to order us a copy of Strange Weather in Tokyo, or request it from the library if you’re like me. The availability of these titles and our openness to a plethora of voices will only happen if we demonstrate our interest in participating in a world culture.