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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

The Year We Left Home

Iowa City was the third city to join UNESCO's network. Iowa has been the setting for a plethora of novels, from Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres to Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson.  Jean Thompson's The Year We Left Home is the story of a single American family during the tumultuous final decades of the twentieth century. Stretching from the early 1970s in the Iowa farmlands to suburban Chicago to the coast of contemporary Italy and moving through the Vietnam War's aftermath, the farm crisis, the numerous economic booms and busts, the novel follows the Erickson siblings as they confront prosperity and heartbreak, setbacks and triumphs, and seek their place in a country whose only constant seems to be breathtaking change. 

The Cruelest Month

Québec City, which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, joined the Cities of Literature network in 2017. Canadian author Louise Penny's mystery novels in the genre of Agatha Christie's mysteries are set in Québec City and focus on Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, who belongs to the provincial police force for Québec. It's spring in Three Pines, a tiny, forgotten village; buds are on the trees and the first flowers are struggling through the newly thawed earth. But not everything is meant to return to life. . .When a few villagers decide to celebrate Easter with a séance at the Old Hadley House, they are hoping to rid the town of its evil---until one of their party dies of fright. Was this a natural death, or was the victim somehow helped along?


Seattle also joined the City of Literature network in 2017. In Jonathan Raban's Waxwings, two immigrants are drawn to Seattle by their own versions of the American Dream. For Tom Janeway, a Hungarian-born English intellectual most at home with his books, it's the family he thought he'd never have. For Chick, an illegal alien newly escaped from a cargo container it's the land of plenty he imagined back in China. But as the stock market hits a new high, anti-globalist riots break out in the streets, a terrorist is arrested and a child disappears, the two men's dreams collide in a way neither could have anticipated. 

Truce, the

The only city in South America to be part of the network, Montevideo has been a City of Literature since 2015. Mario Benedetti is one of the country's best known writers with 80 books to his name. In his novel The Truce, which has been translated into twenty languages, a widowed accountant, Martin Santome, is about to retire. He assumes he'll take up gardening, or the guitar, or whatever retired people do. What he least expects is to fall passionately in love with his shy young employee Laura Avellaneda. As they embark upon an affair, happy and irresponsible, Martin begins to feel the weight of his quiet existence lift until, out of nowhere, their joy is cut short. 

The Lost Dog

Melbourne became the second UNESCO City of Literature in 2008 and has always had a vibrant literary scene. Michelle De Kretser's 2008 novel set in Melbourne describes Tom Loxley, who is trying to finish his book on Henry James, when his dog goes missing, trailing a length of orange twine. As Tom searches, it becomes clear that he needs to unravel other puzzles in his life and the story shifts between past and present, taking in his parents' mixed-race marriage in India, their arrival in Australia in the 1970s, Tom's own failed marriage, and his current involvement with Nelly Zhang, an artist with her own secrets and mysteries. 

The Luminaries

Dunedin became the eighth City of Literature in 2014. The city has been home to many of New Zealand’s most celebrated writers and poets since the 19th century. Eleanor Catton's prize-winning novel is set in Victorian New Zealand where Walter Moody has come to make his fortune in the goldfields and characters often arrive at and leave from the harbor of Dunedin. On arrival he stumbles across a tense gathering of twelve local men, who have met in secret to discuss a series of unsolved crimes. A wealthy man has vanished, a whore has tried to end her life, and an enormous fortune has been discovered in the home of a luckless drunk. Moody is soon drawn into the mystery: a network of fates and fortunes that is as complex and exquisitely patterned as the night sky.

The Iraqi Christ

Baghdad became a UNESCO City of Literature in 2015. As the old saying goes, "Egypt writes, Lebanon publishes, Iraq reads". In Hassan Blasim the reader finds a powerful contemporary author, whose stories are set in various cities, including Baghdad. From legends of the desert to horrors of the forest, Blasim's stories blend the fantastic with the everyday, the surreal with the all-too-real. Taking his cues from Kafka, his prose shines a dazzling light into the dark absurdities of Iraq's recent past and the torments of its countless refugees. 


Olivia is a Paris-based journalist and editor.


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