Spanish is not only one of the most widely spoken languages in the world. It’s also one of the most widely read. Spanish boasts an impressively large and diverse canon of literature, written across the entire world. Learning Spanish gives you the opportunity to read some of these amazing works, in the original!
Reading a book in translation is like asking a friend to go on holiday for you, then show you some pictures and tell you how it was. Reading a book in the original is like getting o the plane yourself and diving into a different world. When you first start out, it can be a bit intimidating if there are lots of words you don’t recognise, but don’t worry. The more you read, the easier it gets.
Here are some top tips for reading in a foreign language:
- Don’t look up every word. Be strict with yourself, and only reach for the dictionary when you’re really lost.
- Take it slowly. Even just reading a page at a time in a foreign language is a great achievement!
- Read things that you enjoy. If you’re having fun, you’ll be much more motivated to keep going.
So here are 10 unmissable books in Spanish, that you absolutely must read:
1. Cien años de soledad
Author: Gabriel García Marquez
English Title: One Hundred Years of Solitude
This landmark novel by Colombian writer Gabriel García Marquez is normally the first to come to mind when you mention literature in the Spanish language. It tells the story of the different generations of the Buendía family, which takes place in the fictional town of Macondo, and has come to symbolise the story of Colombia, its civil wars, and its fate as a nation. It is influenced by Modernism and the Cuban Vanguardia movement, and is an iconic work of Latin American Magical Realism. It has been translated into 37 different languages and sold over 30 million copies worldwide.
2. La sombra del viento
Author: Carlos Ruiz Zafón
English Title: The Shadow of the Wind
This worldwide bestseller by Spanish writer Carlos Luis Zafón is a romantic thriller set in Barcelona. It follows a young writer who is approached by a mysterious unknown figure and asked to write a book, starting at the industrial revolution, leading all the way up to the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. La Sombra del Viento has managed to sell 15 million copies worldwide in many different languages, making it one of the world’s most popular published books. There’s lots of magical realism in this one, but it doesn’t technically belong to the genre.
Author: Julio Cortázar
English Title: Hopscotch
Rayuela is a very original Vanguardist novel by French-Argentinian author Julio Cortázar. What makes Rayuela so unique, is that you can read it however you want. The chapters are all jumbled up, so if you read it cover to cover you will find yourself jumping from Chapter 20 to Chapter 2 and back again. Or, you can find your way from chapter to chapter and try to read it chronologically. You can also skip chapters completely if you don’t want to read them, as not all of them are supposed to be essential to the plot. The plot is set in Paris, where Cortázar spent many years, and depicts bohemian Paris with many autobiographical touches.
4. Crónica de una muerte anunciada
Author: Gabriel García Márquez
English Title: Chronicle of a Death Foretold
The second book on this list by Colombian literary giant Gabriel García Márquez is here not least of all because of its extremely original style. Crónica de una muerte anunciada is written backwards. The book starts at the end and then progresses forward back towards the beginning. Its opening line is: “El día que lo mataron, Santiago Nasar se levantó a las cinco de la mañana“. (“The day they killed him, Santiago Nasar got up at 5am”). You know he has been killed, but over the course of the book you will find out who has done it and, most importantly, why. This is a short but thought-provoking read perfect for intermediate learners.
5. Las travesuras de la niña mala
Author: Mario Vargas Llosa
English Title: The Bad Girl
This love story by Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa, who was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 2010, is sure to be a favourite amongst language lovers. The protagonist is a conference interpreter based in various cities around the world. He starts in Lima, Peru, in the 40s and 50s then goes on to Paris, London, then spends some time in Tokyo before ending up in Madrid. Vargas Llosa takes this opportunity to portray the different histories of these cities, and captures how they were at the time. He describes the hippies and the HIV/AIDS epidemic in London in the 70s, Madrid in the 80s, the artistic boom in Paris and the worst of revolution and guerrilla war in Peru.
6. Como agua para chocolate
Author: Laura Esquivel
English Title: Like Water for Chocolate
Mexican author Laura Esquivel’s popular novel Como agua para chocolate is a classic of the magic realism genre. A traditional Mexican family uses cooking and the mysterious mysticism that surrounds them to escape their dull lives, in which they are constrained by society’s expectations and prescribed gender roles, in order to truly express their feelings and fulfill their dreams. Laura Esquivel originally published the novel monthly in a magazine, with a different recipe accompanying each chapter. So by reading this book, you’ll also learn how to cook some delicious Mexican food! Como agua para chocolate is perfect for intermediate learners of Spanish, and was even made into a popular film in 1992.
7. 20 poemas de amor y una canción desesperada
Author: Pablo Neruda
English Title: Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair
Chilean poet Pablo Neruda published this collection of love poems in 1924, when he was only 19. It is controversial for its strong imagery, especially given the author’s young age, yet to date remains the best selling poetry book in the history of Spanish literature, with over 20 million copies sold. It was also translated into English by the poet W. S. Merwin. Neruda’s memorable lines are regularly quoted by Spanish speakers, such as: “Quiero hacer contigo lo que la primavera hace con los cerezos” (“I want to do to you what Spring does to the cherry trees”)
8. Corazón tan blanco
Author: Javier Marías
English Title: A Heart So White
Here’s another favourite for language lovers! Spanish writer Javier Marías tells the story of how the narrator, a conference interpreter called Juan, tries to use his newly-wed wife Luisa to get to the bottom of his father’s previous two marriages and their murky past. The novel makes use of its setting in decadent Havana, Cuba, and touches on the topics of politics, love, and –of course – the life of conference interpreters.
9. La casa de Bernarda Alba
Author: Federico García Lorca
English Title: The House of Bernarda Alba
If you’d rather read a play than a novel, Federico García Lorca’s outstanding work La casa de Bernarda Alba is an excellent place to start. This play is about a family of women and their matriarch (Bernarda Alba). The father of the family has just died, and the entire house in Granada, Andalusia is in mourning. The play takes place in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, and so serves as a metaphor for post-war Spain. Its portrayal of the Catholic austerity and repression that characterised the post-war era is the perfect setting to tell this story about women, and how the different daughters react to the repression of their female characters. Some have suggested that La casa de Bernarda Alba was Lorca’s premonition of his own death.
10. El Aleph
Author: Jorge Luis Borges
English Title: The Aleph
El Aleph is a short story written by Argentinian writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges, and is published in the collection El Aleph y otros cuentos. The stories contain lots of symbolism, as well as little morals and parables concerning identity, immortality and the infinity of time. This extremely thought-provoking and gripping read is a must for anyone learning Spanish.