Selected books from 40 nations
Old Books by Dead Guys likes to sample world literature, often starting with the Nobel laureates and branching out from there. While the bulk of this blog has focused on American, English, and French literature, OBDG has also done some deep dabbling into Polish, Mexican, Canadian, and Scandinavian literatures. Not surprisingly, European nations have been reviewed the most, due to what’s available in English translation and the public domain. Nevertheless, in the past ten years since the blog’s inception, we’ve covered enough ground (as evidenced by the highlighted map below) to publish a “Parade of Nations” omnibus post.
Below is a list of some of the best books reviewed from 40 different nations. In some cases I’ve only reviewed one book from a particular country (Finland and Portugal, for example), in which case I didn’t really have much choice of what to feature. For other lands where I consider myself somewhat well-read, however, I’ve tried to pick the quintessential book for that nation—what I consider to be the most American book, the most Mexican book, and so on. Most are novels, but some are nonfiction. Enjoy this tour around the literary world! Click on the titles below to read the full reviews.
The Stranger by Albert Camus (1942) - 5 stars
Existentialist novel about a Frenchman in Algeria who is tried for murder.
A Personal Anthology by Jorge Luis Borges (1961) - 3 stars
Collection of short stories, essays, and poems self-edited by Borges.
My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin (1901) - 2.5 stars
Proto-feminist novel of a young woman’s coming-of-age in the Australian bush.
Rock Crystal by Adalbert Stifter (1845) - 3 stars
Adventure story of two children lost in a snowstorm in the Alps.
Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz (1834) - 3.5 stars
The national epic of Poland, set in Lithuania, by an author born in what is now Belarus. (Borders have changed a lot since then.)
Dirty Snow by Georges Simenon (1948) - 5 stars
Dark noir crime thriller set in Nazi-occupied France.
Brazilian Tales, edited by Isaac Goldberg (1921) - 3.5 stars
Grab bag of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century short fiction.
Under the Yoke by Ivan Vazov (1890) - 3.5 stars
Victor Hugo-esque romantic war epic set during the April Uprising against the Ottoman Empire.
Jalna by Mazo de la Roche (1927) - 4.5 stars
Family drama set on an Ontario farm; part Little House on the Prairie, part Wuthering Heights.
Selected Stories by Lu Xun (1918-1926) - 3.5 stars
A collection of short stories by the writer considered the founder of modern Chinese literature.
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Marquez (1967) - 3.5 stars
Multi-generational family saga set in a remote Colombian village, in the style of magic realism.
Czech Republic 🇨🇿
R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) by Karel Capek (1920) - 5 stars
Futuristic science fiction play, in which the word “robot” was first coined.
The Long Journey by Johannes V. Jensen (1908-1922) - 5 stars
(Published in English in three volumes)
Three-volume epic charting the Scandinavian-centric history of mankind from prehistory to modernity.
On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin (1859) - 5 stars
Perhaps the most important science book of all time. Also a great read for nature lovers.
People in the Summer Night by Frans Eemil Sillanpää (1934) - 4 stars
Early modernist collage of vignettes set in a rural Finnish village.
Notre-Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo (1831) - 5 stars
The epic medieval tale of Quasimodo, the Hunchback of Notre-Dame.
The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1774) - 3.5 stars
This story of unrequited love was the flagship novel of Romanticism. To 18th century teenage German hipsters, this was their Catcher in the Rye.
The Elements by Euclid (ca. 300 BC) - Oliver Byrne online edition 3.5 stars
Ancient mathematical text that serves as the foundation of geometry. The Oliver Byrne edition is beautifully illustrated in color.
Tales from Jókai by Mór Jókai (1904) - 3 stars
Short stories by one of Hungary’s most acclaimed writers, with touches of horror and sci-fi.
Seven Icelandic Short Stories, edited by Ásgeir Péturssen and Steingrímur J. Thorsteinsson (1961) - 4 stars
Short stories of Icelandic life including one by Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness.
Mashi and Other Stories by Rabindrinath Tagore (1918) - 3.5 stars
These stories of modern India are a mix of romance, social realism, and a little bit of horror.
The Gadfly by Ethel Lilian Voynich (1897) - 3.5 stars
Though the author is Irish, this novel is about a revolution in Italy and was a big hit in the Soviet Union and China.
The City of the Sun by Tommaso Campanella (1602) - 4 stars
17th century utopian novel inspired by Plato’s Republic.
Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo (1955) - 5 stars
Surrealist novel by Mexico’s most revered novelist. A landmark book in Latin American literature.
The Netherlands 🇳🇱
Ethics by Baruch Spinoza (1677) - 5 stars
Meticulous philosophical treatise that spells out Spinoza’s pantheistic worldview in the logical format of a mathematical proof.
The Interpreters by Wole Soyinka (1964) - 2 stars
Overly obscure novel about a group of young Nigerians who have returned to their home country after studying in Britain and the United States.
Growth of the Soil by Knut Hamsun (1917) - 5 stars
Powerful novel of a man and his family wrestling a living from the Earth in rural Norway.
The Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa (2000) - 4.5 stars
Political thriller about a real-life dictatorship in the Dominican Republic.
The Peasants by Wladyslaw Reymont (4 volumes, 1904-1909) - 5 stars
Four-volume naturalist novel that charts the lives of peasants in a rural Polish town over the course of the four seasons.
The Cave by José Saramago (2000) - 3.5 stars
Unconventional novel about a humble potter who works for an Amazon-esque megacorporation.
Rhinoceros and Other Plays by Eugene Ionesco (1959) - 2.5 stars
Three bizarre dramas that exemplify Theatre of the Absurd.
Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak (1957) - 4 stars
Epic love story of the Russian Revolution.
The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1902) - 5 stars
One of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson’s greatest and spookiest cases.
The Family of Pascual Duarté by Camilo José Cela (1942) - 4.5 stars
A novel written in the form of a memoir by a murderer on death row.
The Treasure by Selma Lagerlöf (1909) - 5 stars
Chilling horror story set on the icy coast of Sweden.
Two Little Misogynists by Carl Spitteler (1907) - 3 stars
Despite the strange title, this is a lighthearted novel about three young children—two boys and a girl—lost on an Alpine road.
Snow by Orhan Pamuk (2002) - 3.5 stars
An expat reporter returns to his Turkish hometown in hopes of reuniting with a lost love.
And Quiet Flows the Don by Mikhail Sholokhov (1940) - 5 stars
Brutally realistic saga of a Cossack family’s struggles through World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the Russian Civil War.
United States of America 🇺🇸
The Octopus by Frank Norris (1901) - 5 stars
Naturalist masterpiece about a conflict between a railroad and ranchers in Southern California.
Genesis by Eduardo Galeano (1982, first volume in Memory of Fire trilogy) - 3.5 stars
A mix of fiction and nonfiction in a series of historical vignettes that chart the course of Latin American history.
(I know that England and Scotland are not separate nations as both are part of the United Kingdom, but I decided to take advantage of the fact that Scotland has its own flag emoji.)