Around the World in 80 Books

On September 15, 2009 one of my (far too many) book groups embarked on a reading challenge entitled "Around the World in 80 Books."  Its object was to read 80 books from 80 different countries over the course of the subsequent 12 months.  Of the nearly seventy people who signed up to participate, six of us met the goal.  Sure, there's a sense of accomplishment, but far more importantly I've found that I've learned quite a lot over the past year, both about history and about my reading tastes in general.

The first thing I discovered was that when one is looking for books about a specific country or region, it's FAR easier to come up with non-fiction books than novels.  Most book sites don't allow you to search by a specific country.  (Ever try to find a novel about Qatar or Oman?  It ain't easy!)  At first, this intimidated me.  I've had an annual goal for as long as I can remember to read six non-fiction books a year, and most of the time I don't succeed.  I do a fine job of BUYING non-fiction books; there are many that look really interesting.  Somehow, though, they always seem to languish on my shelves longer than the novels I purchase.  I finally decided, though, that if I was going to participate in this challenge, I'd just have to bite the bullet and read some non-fiction (yikes!). 

The thing is, though, I discovered I actually LIKE a lot of non-fiction books.  I don't think I've felt this way about books since my discovery of science fiction in junior high; I'm positively giddy with the possibilities.  There's a whole new world of literature out there for me now, one which I can't wait to experience (and my to-be-read list reflects this, unfortunately).  I'm actually kind of kicking myself a bit for ignoring so many excellent works for so many decades.  

A friend recently said that she'd never read a non-fiction book because they were boring, and because she reads about enough tragedy in the newspaper every day.  I suspect that was my opinion, too, before I was forced to dive into them.  True, I did read about a lot of grim situations (I don't know of any book that beats We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families for real-life tragedy).  However, I've also met a number of fascinating people through authors such as Tracy Kidder, been moved by books like Love in the Driest Season, and inspired by the autobiography of William Kamkwandba, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.   I've been to wars past and present with the likes of EB Sledge and David Finkel.  I've climbed to the summits of Everest and Annapurna with legendary expeditions, and visited other far corners of the earth with companions such as perennial favorite Michael Palin.  Finally, I've also developed an intense appreciation of how very fortunate I am to have been born in this time and in this country, thanks to Nothing to Envy, It's Easier to Reach Heaven Than the Other Side of the Street, and When Broken Glass Floats, to name but a few.

The challenge is over, I've read my 80 books.  I'm not sure what percentage of my reading will be made up of non-fiction now (after all, there are a LOT of novels I've put off over the past year – Cormac McCarthy, here I come!), but I know I'll look at non-fiction differently in the future, and you'll no longer need to twist my arm to get me to read it.

UPDATE: By popular request, Kim published her "Around the World" list in a separate post about a week after this. Here is a link to the list which is in spreadsheet form so you can sort it whichever way you wish. The * in the first column indicates a favorite book that she particularly recommends. All links go to more information at BookBrowse. If a book is not linked you'll easily find information elsewhere, such as at IndieBound - the online destination for independent bookstores: Download the list

BookBrowse reviewer Kim Kovacs is an avid reader in the Pacific Northwest. All those rainy days give her the opportunity to enjoy a wide variety of books that span many genres. Browse Kim's reviews.

I would love to have the list of the 80 books ! Is there any way you could email them to me?I have some great travel books that you might love as well. I have the books I have read on an excel spread sheet and would be happy to share them with you!
# Posted By lani | 10/17/10 1:46 PM
Hi Lani, I'm one step ahead of you - I already have Kim's list but she's planning on annotating it a little - in the hope that we can post it in a week or two.
# Posted By Davina (BookBrowse editor) | 10/17/10 5:01 PM
Sounds like a great goal for 2011! Have you posted a list of the 80 books anywhere?
# Posted By Margaret | 10/22/10 3:16 AM
This is my first time posting on BookBrowse. I suppose that you already know that Nancy Pearl has written a new book called "Book Lust To Go," which probably would be helpful in finding books set in various locations. The problem is that maybe all the readers in your book group might end up reading the same books! Anyway, I had the opportunity to hear librarian extrordinare Nancy Pearl in person recently, and she was very entertaining.

I also intend to participate in the 80 Books challenge, but as I typically read around 30 books per year, I fear that I am destined to fail.
# Posted By Pat M | 10/25/10 11:20 AM
Hi Pat

Thanks for the recommendation for Nancy Pearl's book. BookBrowse is also a pretty good source for finding books by location - we categorize books by continent, US state and region and by countries or smaller regions in Europe and Asia. You'll find the lists at - you do have to be a member to view the lists but at $29.95 for a year's membership with a one month no risk free trial it's very good value! Membership info at

Davina Morgan-Witts, BookBrowse Editor
# Posted By Davina MW | 10/25/10 5:08 PM
This is a great idea. Has Kim Kovacs thought to read 50 books from each of the 50 states? Could be more applicable to those who can't afford to travel abroad, but would like to read/get acquainted with the country or continent. She could cheat and include the provinces of Canada, states of Mexico, countries of central America and leave out several or many of the states of the U.S..
# Posted By H. Harris | 11/6/10 10:40 PM
Hi there - The 50 states read was actually a sub-read for the Around-the-World challenge. I've considered doing that at some point, but haven't gotten around to it yet. So many books, so little time!
# Posted By Kim Kovacs | 11/7/10 9:00 AM
Thanks for sharing your success with all of us BookBrowse readers! What a great accomplishment! Slow reader that I am, my little reading spreadsheet tells me I have read only 41 books this year—so I really appreciate what you’ve been able to achieve—plus the challenge of reading 80 on 80 different countries! I am so looking forward to seeing your list when Davina posts it!
Marsha Toy Engstrom, The Book Club Cheerleader
P.S. I do have Nancy Pearl’s new gem, “Book Lust to Go” and would also like to recommend the book, “Novel Destinations: Literary Landmarks From Jane Austen's Bath to Ernest Hemingway's Key West” by Shannon Mckenna Schmidt and Joni Rendon for another literary twist on the travel theme.
# Posted By Marsha Toy Engstrom | 11/9/10 5:39 PM
Marsha - the list has now been posted - look two posts further up for a link (and I'll add a link to this earlier post as well.
# Posted By Davina (BookBrowse editor) | 11/10/10 12:27 AM
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