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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

I Saw Her That Night

Ljubljana was declared a City of Literature in 2015. I Saw Her That Night, is a love story in war time, about a few years in the life Veronika Zarnik, a young bourgeois woman from Ljubljana, sucked into the whirlwind of a turbulent period in history and who mysteriously disappears. We follow her story from the perspective of five different characters, who also talk about themselves, as well as the troubled Slovenian times before and during World War II.

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City of Lions

The City of Literature, Lviv, in western Ukraine, is known by a variety of names including Lwow, Lvov, and Lemberg. One of the few non-fiction books chosen for this list, City of Lions presents two essays, written more than half a century apart, but united by one city. Jozef Wittlin's sensual and lyrical paean to his Lwow, written in exile, is a deep cry of love and pain for his city, most of whose familiar faces have fled or been killed. Philippe Sands' finely honed exploration of what has been lost and what remains interweaves a lawyer's love of evidence with the emotional heft of a descendant of Lviv. City of Lions is a powerful and melancholy evocation of central Europe in the twentieth century, with a special resonance for today's troubled continent.

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Accidental Death of an Anarchist

Milan, where a large number of Italian publishers are located, became a City of Literature in 2017. Playwright Dario Fo's controversial farce, Accidental Death of an Anarchist, is a sharp and hilarious satire on political corruption. It was based on the true case of an anarchist railway worker who, in 1969, 'fell' to his death from a police headquarters window in Milan. Fo's play has been performed all over the world and is widely recognized as a classic of modern drama. 

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Journey to Portugal

Here too, we're cheating a little, as this non-fiction account is not set in Óbidos, which became a City of Literature in 2015. An ancient haven for lovers of Portuguese literature, Óbidos is the world’s smallest city within the network. We've chosen Portuguese Nobel Laureate Jose Saramago's account of his travels from the misty mountains of the north to the southern seascape of the Algarve; a passionate rediscovery of his own land.  

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The Trial

Prague became the ninth City of Literature in December 2014. Franz Kafka, the city's iconic author here tells the story of the mysterious indictment, trial and reckoning forced upon Kafka's Joseph K, which has influenced almost every major writer since it was published posthumously in 1925. By rendering the absurd and the terrifying with scrupulous factual accuracy and evenness of tone, Kafka presents the world we recognize in a gripping narrative which is also a revelation of its hidden significance.

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The Atom Station

Reykjavík became the fifth UNESCO City of Literature in 2011 and the first non-English speaking city to join the network. In this novel by Halldór Laxness, another Nobel Laureate, he imagines that Americans make an offer to buy land in Iceland to build a NATO airbase after the Second World War. A storm of protest ensues throughout the country. Narrated by a country girl from the north, the novel follows her experiences after she takes up employment as a maid in the house of a Member of Parliament. Her observations and experiences expose the bourgeois society of the south as rootless and shallow and in stark contrast to the age-old culture of the solid and less fanciful north.

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When the Doves Disappeared

Tartu, Estonia's second largest city joined UNESCO's network in 2015. Although Sofi Oksanen was born in Finland, her mother is Estonian and she is considered one of the region's best contemporary writers. Oksanen has often explored Russia's shadow on Estonian politics and here she writes about Estonia between 1941 and 1963. Beginning in Communist-ruled, war-ravaged Estonia, two men are fleeing from the Red Army - Roland, a fiercely principled freedom fighter, and his slippery cousin Edgar. When the Germans arrive, Roland goes into hiding; Edgar abandons his unhappy wife, Juudit, and takes on a new identity as a loyal supporter of the Nazi regime. Oksanen moves the reader forward to the 1960s when Estonia is once again under Communist control, independence even further out of reach behind the Iron Curtain. Edgar is now a Soviet apparatchik, desperate to hide the secrets of his past life and stay close to those in power. But his fate remains entangled with Roland's, and with Juudit, who may hold the key to uncovering the truth.

The Captain's Daughter

Ulyanovsk, Russia, which was named after Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov-Lenin, born there in 1870, used to be known as Simbirsk. It became a City of Literature in 2015. In Pushkin's novel, set during the reign of Catherine the Great, the young Grinev sets out for his new career in the army and en route performs an act of kindness by giving his warm coat to a man freezing in a blizzard. This action reaps its reward when he subsequently finds himself caught up in the rebellion headed by the infamous, and strangely familiar Pugachev. Rivalry with a fellow officer for the affections of Captain Mironov's daughter further complicates Grinev's affairs, and ultimately it is only an appeal by Masha Mironova, the eponymous captain's daughter, to the Empress herself that can unravel a tangled web.

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The Embarrassment of Riches

Utrecht became the 25th UNESCO City of Literature in 2017. Utrecht was Holland's most important city until the Golden Age, when it was surpassed by Amsterdam, but it has remained an important cultural center. Simon Schama's masterful book on Holland's Golden Age takes the reader to the seventeenth century, when Holland was a tiny island of prosperity in a sea of want. Its homes were well-furnished and fanatically clean; its citizens feasted on 100-course banquets and speculated fortunes on new varieties of tulip. Yet, in the midst of plenty, the Dutch were ill at ease. Simon Schama explores the mysterious contradictions of a nation that invented itself from the ground up, attained an unprecedented level of affluence, and lived in dread of being corrupted by its happiness.

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I'll Be Right There

Bucheon, a satellite city of Seoul, also joined the City of Literature network in 2017. Interestingly, besides producing a number of authors, the city also has a special connection with Nobel laureate Pearl S. Buck, who after the Korean War, opened an orphanage in Bucheon to look after war and mixed-raced orphans. Kyung-Sook Shin's I'll be Right There is a love story. It follows four friends who meet in the 1980s, at university in Seoul. South Korea is still a military dictatorship and the students cling to each other, falling in and out of love. As they face personal loss and political uncertainty their paths diverge; mysterious deaths occur and secrets are revealed. 

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Olivia is a Paris-based journalist and editor.


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