The best known books set in each country: Pakistan

See here for methodology.

TitleAuthorGoodreads
raters
LibraryThing
owners
Three Cups of TeaGreg Mortenson343,98412,951
I Am MalalaMalala Yousafzai (and Christina Lamb)577,7326,439
Midnight’s ChildrenSalman Rushdie124,11313,908
Exit WestMohsin Hamid138,9123,617
Home FireKamila Shamsie65,4501,737
I Am Malala (Young Readers Edition)Malala Yousafzai31,7042,433
Stones Into SchoolsGreg Mortenson16,9941,904
ShameSalman Rushdie12,3632,444

Well, this is a bit grim: the top book set in Pakistan among LibraryThing readers is a real White Saviour narrative about a guy who just goes and does good to the people of Paksitan, whether they want it done to them or not. I haven’t read it, and I have seen nothing about it that encourages me to do so. (And the same goes for the sequel, in eighth place on this table, which I suspect may be anyway more set in Afghanistan than Pakistan.)

Malala Yousafzai, who wins among Goodreads users, is a different matter. Although her autobiography is ghost-written by Christina Lamb, it’s a genuine insider story of life in Swat, and I think I will look out for it. It’s noticeable that the young readers’ edition comes in sixth place.

To my dismay, I need to rule out the next three books because less than 50% of each is set in Pakistan. Midnight’s Children and Exit West are both favourite books of mine, but most of Midnight’s Children is set in India and none (as far as I remember) of Exit West is set in Pakistan. Similarly, Home Fire is mostly set in England.

So the top fiction book set in Pakistan is Salman Rushdie’s Shame. I will look out for it too.

The best known books set in each country: Indonesia

See here for methodology.

This is a case where actual Indonesian writers are much better represented on Goodreads than on LibraryThing.

TitleAuthorGoodreads
raters
LibraryThing
owners
Eat, Pray, LoveElizabeth Gilbert1,746,16922,140
Lord JimJoseph Conrad31,1429,039
Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883Simon Winchester20,7784,139
Max HavelaarMultatuli [Eduard Douwes Dekker]9,3061,654
Bumi Manusia / This Earth of MankindPramoedya Ananta Toer19,907762
Nathaniel’s Nutmeg: How One Man’s Courage Changed the Course of HistoryGiles Milton4,9271,731
Cantik itu Luka / Beauty Is a WoundEka Kurniawan14,764467
Laskar Pelangi / The Rainbow TroopsAndrea Hirata30,237224

So, I’m excluding Eat, Pray, Love because less than 50% of the book is set in Indonesia – the Indonesian section is longer than the Italian or Indian sections, but still less than half. In Lord Jim, the settlement of Patusan where the protagonist finds redemption is certainly in what were then the Dutch East Indies and is now Indonesia, but we don’t get there until just over halfway through the book, so it also fails my 50% test. (But it’s a great book.)

I haven’t managed to get hold of Simon Winchester’s Krakatoa, but it sounds very much like the kind of book that I would like, and importantly for our purposes, most (but not all) of it deals with events in and offshore from the current territory of Indonesia. I am less certain about Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, but it seems more likely than not that the majority of its pages are set in the islands.

On the fictional side, Max Havelaar does well on LibraryThing, but three Indonesian works do much better on Goodreads, with Laskar Pelangi / The Rainbow Troops scoring best on GR. It seems to have a real following in other Asian countries as well as Indonesia.

Pakistan next!

The best known books set in each country: USA

See here for methodology.

So, this is one of two countries which are drastically over-represented on Goodreads and LibraryThing, and the results of my survey are a bit depressing.

TitleAuthorGoodreads
raters
LibraryThing
owners
The Hunger GamesSuzanne Collins8,680,73064,121
To Kill a MockingbirdHarper Lee6,132,89978,195
Twilight Stephenie Meyer6,586,59858,102
The Great GatsbyF. Scott Fitzgerald5,247,50271,884
The Catcher in the RyeJ.D. Salinger3,528,33569,408
Catching FireSuzanne Collins3,686,07348,973
The Da Vinci CodeDan Brown2,354,04670,195
The Fault in Our StarsJohn Green5,146,02026,725
Fahrenheit 451Ray Bradbury2,421,46553,669

I thought quite carefully about whether the Suzanne Collins books qualify as being set in the USA. But they are clearly set in the territory of today’s USA, if in a dystopian future, and as we go on I’ll be accepting books set in territories that are now part of completely different countries to the time they were set. Also we clearly must accept Fahrenheit 451 as a contender, and it’s difficult to make a case for it that does not equally apply to The Hunger Games and Catching Fire. So I think I’ll have to allow The Hunger Games as this week’s winner; which is a shame, because To Kill a Mockingbird is a much, much, much better book.

There can be no doubt about Twilight, Gatsby or Catcher, all of which are clearly rooted in the contemporary or near contemporary USA. I have blocked my memories of The Da Vinci Code, but I think most of it is set outside the USA so it does not count? The Fault in Our Stars is the only one of these that I have not read, but I believe it’s mostly set in the USA apart from a climactic sequence in the Netherlands.

Nest up: Indonesia.

The best known books set in each country: China

See last week’s post for methodology.

As with India, China is a big place, so I’m looking at the top eight books which are often tagged with the word “china” by users of Goodreads and LibraryThing.

TitleAuthorGoodreads
raters
LibraryThing
owners
The Joy Luck ClubAmy Tan683,23017,574
孫子兵法 / The Art of WarSun Tzu488,94523,043
Snow Flower and the Secret FanLisa See372,51511,252
The Good EarthPearl S. Buck249,73213,848
道德經 / Tao Te ChingLao Tzu157,64718,474
三体 / The Three-Body ProblemLiu Cixin333,5438,595
The Bonesetter’s DaughterAmy Tan128,9837,891
Wild Swans: Three Daughters of ChinaJung Chang113,0058,318

I’m a little uneasy about giving The Joy Luck Club the top spot. The framing narrative is set in San Francisco, and the author has never actually lived in China; but on the other hand it’s clear that the majority of the action of the book is set in China, so I guess I’ll allow it. The Bonesetter’s Daughter has a similar structure of setting.

The Art of War and Tao Te Ching are great Chinese texts, but the principles are universal, and I don’t think there is a single place name mentioned at any point in either, so I’m putting them in italics as not really set in China for my purposes.

Both Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and The Good Earth are entirely set in China but written by American writers; having said which, Kisa See identifies as Chinese, and Pearl S. Buck grew up in China and lived there for much of her life.

The top books on GR/LT which are mostly set in China and are by authors who were actually born and grew up in China are The Three-Body Problem, followed by Wild Swans. (Though I’ll admit that The Three Body Problem has a dramatic passage set in the Panama Canal, and Jung Chang left China in 1978 when she was 26.)

Not sure how long I will keep this up, but next is the USA.

The best known books set in each country: India

A few years back I ran through each of the countries and territories of Europe and looked at the books set there which had the highest number of owners on LibraryThing and the highest number of raters on Goodreads. This is of course an imperfect metric, as all such metrics must be. But it does indicate the visible cultural impact of each country among GR / LT readers. No judgements can be made on literary merit, just on the effectiveness of marketing.

So I think I will try it again, but this time taking the whole world. If once again I take the countries in order of population, that puts India first, as it has recently overtaken China as the world’s most populous state. I’m going to be completely arbitrary about how many books I list from each country, but will generally aim for five-ish. But India is a big place, and the top eight books on Goodreads and LibraryThing which readers describe as being set there are as follows:

TitleAuthorGoodreads
raters
LibraryThing
owners
Eat, Pray, LoveElizabeth Gilbert1,743,75922,110
SiddharthaHermann Hesse771,52927,768
The God of Small ThingsArundhati Roy298,09519,592
Interpreter of MaladiesJhumpa Lahiri193,41312,094
The White TigerAravind Adiga191,6619,573
Midnight’s ChildrenSalman Rushdie123,79513,881
A Fine BalanceRohinton Mistry149,4989,155
A Passage to IndiaE.M. Forster80,35712,409

So, something that is going to happen quite a lot if I continue this project is that I will have to disqualify books of which less than 50% is set in the relevant country. In the case of Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, less than 30% of the book is set in India, the first third being set in Italy and the remainder in Indonesia. So it gets disqualified.

As it happens Siddartha, by Hermann Hesse, is quite high on my reading list right now. Investigation reveals some doubt about whether the key moments are actually set in India or Nepal; the site of the Buddha’s home town, Kapilavastu, is contested. A quick scan of the text reveals that there are very few place names mentioned apart from Savathi, also known as Shravasti, which is definitely in India.

But there is room for reasonable doubt about whether Hesse was really writing about India at all. It’s clear that the top book on both Goodreads and LibraryThing which is both set in a recognisable place called India and by an Indian writer is The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, which I read and enjoyed many years ago. But I’ll come back to this after I have read Siddartha, to give Hesse a fair chance.