The kind of literature that most people prefer is that which has at least a pinch of familiarity. This may well be found in the names of characters, cultural aspects, the locations or simply in the writer’s thought process. But does one need to be British to enjoy Jane Austen? Or Peruvian to understand Mario Vargas Llosa?
Of course not – as long as you try to keep an open mind.
Reading a predominantly universal literature was not something I had planned. It was purely my way of exploring the wonderful, though often cruel, world we live in. I was never satisfied with the familiar because I thought it couldn’t possibly teach me anything new. I felt the urge to develop a more global mindset.
Ann Morgan, a freelance writer and editor from London, reached the same conclusion when she had realized that her bookshelf was overridden with authors from the English-speaking world. Then she decided it was time to start reading books originating from every officially recognized country on Earth. However, this proved to be quite difficult as many authors are not available in English. Even though I appreciate Morgan’s determination, I would certainly not embark on such a challenge. I’d rather let my heart carry me on a paper magic carpet around the world. Do I leave too much to chance, too many books unread? Certainly. But the anticipation of discovering a new book infinitely thrills me as compared to ticking off title after title on a very long to-be-read list.
If I had approached universal literature in any other way, I would have never discovered one of my all time favorite books, Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. I still remember the way I found it – or rather how it found me. Several years ago, I was on a train in Scotland. To my right, the sun was setting like a giant shriveled apricot into the tumultuous waters of the River Tay as we crossed one of the most spectacular Scottish rail bridges. I was sitting across a young man who was so absorbed by a book which I didn’t initially pay any attention to and wouldn’t normally pick up in a bookstore. Through his headphones, I could hear the melodic tones of some classical piece. Having briefly been a medical student myself, I instantly recognized him as one, even without a white coat. The surgical precision of his every movement gave him away. I soon turned my attention to the book he was holding and made a mental note to remember its title. I was so intrigued by the look on his face as he flipped page after page. Not long after that day, I started to read that book too. I immediately realized my assumption was right about the young man being a medical student as Cutting for Stone is the story of two twin brothers who trained to become doctors in the conflict-ridden Ethiopia of the ’70s.
The amount of general knowledge to be learned and absorbed by reading authors from faraway countries and from other historical times is phenomenal. This is an incontestable fact. In this regard, books can be viewed as a treasury of the world, the best way to preserve those things that the world tends to forget with the passage of time.
But reading universal literature doesn’t only enrich your knowledge. It can make gain a better understanding of the world and its different cultures. Many writers who lived during turbulent times have used the printed word to immortalize the incredible crises that gripped their beloved countries. Facts can be found in history books, but these often fail to convey, as historical fiction does, how certain events had influenced the inner worlds of ordinary people. Good books can connect the reader to another reality, one which we cannot even imagine. This has the power to make you less judgemental towards others who seem to be so different from you – how many social issues this could solve in the world today! When writers create great tridimensional characters, you can see the world through a different set of eyes and feel their humanity through their well-crafted hearts.
Ultimately, universal literature washes away the generalizations and stereotyping that arise between people from different backgrounds. Your identity should not be the end product of the country you happened to be born in. It has the potential to be much more than that once you start feeling as an essential part of this interconnected world.
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