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A Reading List from UNESCO's 28 Cities of Literature

At the end of October the UNESCO Cities of Literature initiative announced eight new cities as part of its network. The designation awarded by UNESCO goes to cities with a strong literary heritage but also a dynamic contemporary literary scene, and a desire to develop their city via cultural and literary programs. Edinburgh was the first city in a network that now includes 28, in 23 countries and spread across six continents. In order to be part of this global literary family, cities must be able to demonstrate quality literary initiatives such as publishing houses or literary festivals, and the preservation, promotion and dissemination of domestic and foreign literature whether in libraries or bookshops and in public or private cultural spaces.

When a city is designated as part of the network it’s permanent, much like a World Heritage site. According the network’s site, where you can also read about how the idea came to be, it “brings together over 1000 libraries, 70 literary festivals and over 900 bookshops. The world’s oldest book, the world’s tallest monument to a writer, the world’s first Master of Fine Arts Creative Writing programme, the oldest university in central Europe, and the only train station named after a book, can all be found in these cities.”

On Edinburgh's site there are 10 suggested readings for books set in the city, while below you'll find a reading list for great books set in the 28 Cities of Literature, beginning with Edinburgh, and moving east, west and south from there.  

Banner photo by Tony Marsh of author Alexander McCall Smith

Trainspotting

Beginning with Edinburgh, the Cities of Literature network's first city, the book Trainspotting, from which the iconic film was inspired, is a loosely knotted string of jagged, dislocated tales that describe the lives of a gang of Scottish heroin addicts. Alternately shocking, hilarious and challenging, the stories focus on the darker side of human nature and drug use in Edinburgh in the 1990s. 

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North and South

Manchester joined the City of Literature network in 2017. Not only is the Northern Fiction Alliance now based in Manchester, but the North of England has inspired many a great novel. As relevant now as when it was first published, Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South skilfully weaves a compelling love story into a clash between the pursuit of profit and humanitarian ideals. Gaskell fused individual feeling with social concern, and created in Margaret Hale one of the most original heroines of Victorian literature. 

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The Accidental

Norwich, another City of Literature in the UK, is where Ali Smith's The Accidental is set. The novel is about the Smart family's holiday and a stranger who upends it one hot summer. The beguiling Amber appears at the door bearing unexpected gifts, trampling over family boundaries and sending each of the Smarts scurrying from the dark into the light.

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Sons and Lovers

Nottingham, of course, is the city here, part of UNESCO’s network since 2015. Taking its autobiographical inspiration from D.H. Lawrence's experience of growing up in a coal-mining town, Sons and Lovers is a vivid account of the conflict between class, family and personal desires. The marriage of Gertrude and Walter Morel has become a battleground. Repelled by her uneducated and violent husband, delicate Gertrude devotes her life to her children, especially to her sons, William and Paul, determined they will not follow their father into working in the coal mines. But conflict is inevitable when Paul seeks to escape his mother's suffocating grasp through relationships with women his own age. 

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At Swim, Two Boys

It goes without saying that Dublin is a City of Literature. The difficulty lies in choosing a single book that is representative of the city. Flann O'Brien's Swim Two Birds? Roddy Doyle's A Star Called Henry? Or a work by James Joyce?  Jamie O'Neil's At Swim, Two Boys, takes place at the Forty Foot, a great jut of Dublin rock where gentlemen bathe in the scandalous nude, and where two boys meet day after day. There they make a pact: that Doyler will teach Jim to swim, and in a year, they will swim the bay to the distant beacon of the Muglins rock, to raise the Green and claim it for themselves. As a turbulent year drives inexorably towards the Easter Rising of 1916 and Ireland sets forth on a path to uncertain glory, a tender, secret love story unfolds. 

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The Time Of The Doves

Barcelona has been a City of Literature since 2015. The Time of the Doves, (La plaça del Diamant in Catalan) is a classic Barcelona novel published in 1962. It tells the story of the naïve Natalia/Colometa who works in a pastry shop and meets Quimet, the man who will become her husband. It documents a tumultuous period in Catalan history--from the proclamation of the Republic until the end of the Spanish Civil War, and how Colometa's inner life and her life with her family plays out. A moving and universal account of the human condition, Rodoreda's book has been widely translated, and was made into a film in 1982.

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Leo Africanus

Granada is another City of Literature in Spain. Amin Maalouf's book is an imaginary account of the famous geographer, adventurer, and scholar Hasan al-Wazzan, known as Leo Africanus, who was born in Granada in 1488. His family fled the Inquisition and took him to the city of Fez, in North Africa. Hasan became an itinerant merchant, and made many journeys to the East, journeys rich in adventure and observation. He was captured by a Sicilian pirate and taken back to Rome as a gift to Pope Leo X, who baptized him Johannes Leo. While in Rome, he wrote the first trilingual dictionary (Latin, Arabic and Hebrew), as well as his celebrated Description of Africa, for which he is still remembered as Leo Africanus.

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The Reader

Moving northeast to Heidelberg, part of the network since 2014, this love-story-cum-thriller by Bernhard Schlink tells the story of 15-year-old Michael Berg, whose chance meeting with an older woman leads to far more than he ever imagined. Hanna, and Michael embark on a passionate, clandestine love affair which leaves Michael both euphoric and confused. But Hanna is not all she seems. Years later, as a law student observing a trial in Germany, Michael is shocked to realize that the person in the dock is Hanna, and the woman he had loved is a criminal. Much about her behaviour during the trial does not make sense. But then suddenly, and terribly, it does - Hanna is not only obliged to answer for a horrible crime, she is also desperately concealing an even deeper secret.

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A Long Long Time Ago and Essentially True

A leading center of cultural life in Poland, authors and poets such as Czesław Miłosz and Wisława Szymborska spent time in Krakow, part of the network since 2013. Brigid Pasulka’s debut novel A Long Long Time Ago and Essentially True is based in Krakow and is a love story about a young woman and her country on the cusp of change. On the eve of World War II in a place called Half-Village, a man nicknamed the Pigeon falls in love with a girl fabled for her angelic looks. Using his 'golden hands' he decides to turn her family's modest hut into a beautiful home, and build his way into her heart. But war arrives, cutting short their charming courtship and bringing with it terrible events. Fifty years on, young Baba Yaga leaves her village to make a new life in Krakow. What she finds is not the city of her grandmother's tales but a place struggling in the aftermath of communism's fall, where opportunity seems reserved for the lucky few. Then tragedy strikes and the past reaches out an unexpected hand to her.

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Marta Oulie

We are cheating a bit here as Nobel Prize-winning Sigrid Undset's novel is set in Kristiana (Oslo) but the author did live in Lillehammer, a City of Literature. This 1907 novel scandalized readers with the opening line: "I have been unfaithful to my husband."  Marta Oulie, written in the form of a diary, intimately documents the inner life of a young woman disappointed and constrained by the conventions of marriage as she longs for an all-consuming passion. Set in Kristiania (now Oslo) at the beginning of the twentieth century, Undset's book is a psychological portrait of a woman whose destiny is defined by the changing mores of her day--as she descends, inevitably, into an ever-darker reckoning.

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Olivia is a journalist and editor and manages the editorial content for Bookwitty in English. She is based in Paris.

4 Comments

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Hector F. Santiago
Thanks for the proposal, hope to be up to the task... https://www.bookwitty.com/reading_list/getting-over-kafka-a-reading-list-on-czech/5a06041050cef7358b07546d
Hector F. Santiago
Well, love "Leo the African" (Tariq Ali's "The shadow of the pomegranate tree" is a must too), but giving preference to Malouf over Lorca when talking about Granada seems quite bold... Same for Kafka btw, there are plenty of Czech coetaneous that would represent Prague much better (e.g. Jiri Karasek ze Lvovic, Jaroslav Hasek, Karel and Josef Capek, etc.)
Olivia Snaije
So many wonderful books and of course a single one cannot be representative of a city. Thank you for these others and please do create your own reading list, I’d love to read your list on Czech authors, for example.

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