Owner, Idlewild Books, New York City
If you’re reading this, it’s probably because literature matters to you, because you agree with the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa that literature is “one of the common denominators of human experience through which human beings may recognize themselves and converse with each other, no matter how different their professions, their life plans, their geographical and cultural locations, their personal circumstances.”
Yet here in the United States, we seem to be conversing mostly with ourselves. Even among those of us who love to read, we are largely cut off from the great dialogue that connects so much of the world (and missing some damn good books) due to the fact that less than three percent of what’s published in this country is translated from other languages.
Three percent is low: in France and Spain, for example, both of which produce prodigious amounts of their own literature, more than half the new books published in a given year are translated from other languages. And even among the small number of foreign-language books that do make it into English in this country, about 300 to 400 titles in an average year, how many do you hear about?
If your main source for book news is mainstream media, the answer is: not many. Nine of the ten books on The New York Times’s “Best Books of 2009” list were written by Americans (the tenth was by a Brit), as were nearly all the titles on their year-end list of 100 notable books. And very few of the books reviewed in any major American newspaper come from beyond our borders.
Phi Beta Iota: The author makes an very important point. Read the entire post to see his thoughtfully selected examples of books Americans should be but are not reading.