Can you name all the countries in Africa? If you live outside of the United States, you’d probably could. Shamefully, I can’t.

This past weekend, I went to a swanky get-together at Boston Erin’s house. We started talking about board games, and apparently there’s a German game that is a train trek across the United States. We thought it was an innovative way to teach people about U.S. geography. But then the conversation turned to how little we know about other countries, and so little about our own. I’m sure there are those not born in America that can plot a trip from New York to California, but if I had to explain how to get from Düsseldorf to Berlin I would be out of luck.

Then Africa came up as a topic, which seems to be a reoccurring topic in my conversations lately. Same thing—our little party group was hard pressed to name even a few African nations. And at work yesterday, again, it became a difficult question to answer for my well-educated coworkers. We just don’t know enough about other countries.

More signs in front of me: Last night, I attempted the Country Poetry Meme, focusing on Libya. Once again, the truth hurts. It was painfully obvious how little I knew about life outside the U.S. borders. All of this culminated with the realization that a few days ago I bought the latest Vanity Fair magazine co-edited by Bono—the Africa issue. I can’t ignore all of these signs. (FYI--20 different covers. I have the Oprah/George Clooney issue.)

So I’m using my Vanity Fair as entry into learning more about this vast, beautiful continent. I do so shamefully, because I’m using a magazine to learn geography. But this is just the entry point. As a nation, U.S. kids really don’t know that much about things outside of their own experiences. Not sure how we expect to be a relevant nation in the future the net generation can’t keep up in a global economy. So one day, I hope to be the entry point for my children to teach them about life and experiences outside of our borders. Maybe we’ll even travel abroad to immerse ourselves in another culture--something I hadn't really thought about until now.

In the meantime, I’ll settle for a few world literature recommendations. Who should I add to my reading list?


deirdre said…
A few months ago I was talking to someone at work, a woman in her seventies, who was going to Africa on a group tour. I asked which countries she'd be traveling to and she gave me a completely blank look and said, "Isn't Africa all one country?" I'm not sure if I'm more worried about her cognitive abilities or appalled over her lack of world knowledge. She went, but still isn't sure which countries she saw.

We are an ignorant country for the most part - so sure the U.S. is the center of the universe and that our ways are the only ones that have value.

And, no, I couldn't name most of the countries in Africa, or in Eastern Europe either. I can't even claim to know the positions of some of our own states. Our world is too small to accept this kind of ignorance. We have world maps on our walls (because we both have a fascination) and I study them sometimes to learn how much more world is out there beyond my little daily commute.
bostonerin said…
Brava, Jan! If more people took the plunge to learn about a foreign place, we'd be a lot better off--so whether Vanity Fair is your entrance point, or surfing the web, I'd say do it proudly.

As for world lit...Salman Rushdie (THE GROUND BENEATH HER FEET is awesome), Gabriel Garcia Marquez (NO ONE lOVES THE GENERAL & OTHER STORIES), Ha Jin (WAR TRASH), and Jhumpa Lahiri (THE NAMESAKE). Also, Dave Eggers has a new book out that he wrote based on the life of one of the Sudanese Lost Boys. He worked with this refugee and created a novel about his 3000 mile journey across the dessert. I think it's called THE WAS OF THE WAS, but double check on Amazon.
Anonymous said…
I once tried to get my little cousin (who will be attending Brown in the fall, but was in H.S. at the time) to play the game where you name all the U.S. states, and she refused. She didn't see the point! Even sader, I couldn't figure out a good way to explain the importance of knowing about the world outside your one little town.

This is how we are taught here. Can you remember learning about any US history outside of pilgrims, emancipation proclamation, or WWI? Do you find it curious (or scandalous) that we were never taught about the Korean War or Vietnam, or about the Chinese immigrants who worked our Western railroads?

My often treat my 0% knowledge of US and world geography, history and events like a joke. It's that pathetic.

ps. I have the Vanity Fair, too. My dad told me to pick it up. My cover has Maya A.
Catherine said…
I learned the US states, countries of Europe, Africa and Asia from the free online games at
They are great fun. I'll come back later with some book recommendations.
dahlia and balu said…
Yesterday I read (yes, all in one day--I got carried away) Khaled Hosseini's new book A Thousand Splendid Suns. Usually I have at least one fiction and one nonfiction book going, as well as various poetry, but I am so stunned by this book that it will be a few days at least before I can pick up another novel.
January said…
Dahlia and Balu, thanks for stopping by. I'll have to check out A Thousand Splendid Suns. Lately, I've been reading just poetry but I really should make time for fiction because I do love diving into a good novel now and then.
January said…
Catherine, that's perfect! Thanks for sharing the link. Glad to say that I can at least identify all 50 U.S. states. But the thought of identifying Canadian states, much less African countries, is intimidating.

What a great link--one more distraction while at work--excellent!
January said…
Phoebe and Erin, if it wasn't for the conversation at Erin's party, I could not have generated this positive dialogue.

It's amazing how history books have glossed over U.S. history. Guess it's up to individuals like us to see out the truth. I wonder how history will represent the current war to our children.

Erin, thanks for your recommendations--awesome as always.
January said…
Deirdre, the amount of information that I don't know but want to learn is so overwhelming. It would be great to learn the geographies of the world, and then to travel to a few of those places to see them for myself.
Catherine said…
"Half of a Yellow Sun" has been getting good reviews. The author is Nigerian, I think. I haven't read it yet. Khaled Hosseini's "The Kite Runner" is stunning, and "A Thousand Splendid Suns" is on my reading list. I believe he lives in the US now, as does Jhumpa Lahiri, so does that qualify as world literature? South Africa - there is J M Coetzee, and one I enjoyed was Marion Molteno's "If You Can Walk, You Can Dance". India - Arundahti Roy's "The God of Small Things". Japan - Ruri Pilgrim's "Fish of the Seto Inland Sea". I checked my bookcase and found some Solzhenitsyn and Mikhail Sholokov, which I have never finished - I may go back and try them.
As for poetry, a line in a poem "since her death, the only people I can bear to read/are the beautiful Czechs./It must be their weight and their sardonic wit" led me to Miroslav Holub. And there is Neruda, of course, from Chile, and I have loved Prevert (French) for a long time. I think we read less foreign poetry because of the problems of translation. Google will no doubt lead you to winners of the Nobel prize for literature, or the Booker prize, or the Orange prize (women writers only, I think), or the Commonwealth Writers prize, or the Commonwealth poetry prize.
There are lots of good articles on books at
That should give you plenty to be going on with
January said…
The one book I have read on your list is Arundahti Roy's "The God of Small Things." It was a great read.

Thanks for the suggestions, Catherine. All very good ideas for upcoming reads.

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