Cinco libros to learn Spanish (and feel muy smug afterwards)

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again – culture is the cornerstone to mastering a foreign language.

Watching movies and TV shows, listening to music and podcasts– there are many ways to consume culture and content when it comes to learning a new language.

Books of all shapes and sizes, particularly medium-sized rectangles, are a fantastic way to improve your Spanish, help build vocabulary and improve your spelling. Sadly, most learners are often disheartened at the prospect of starting a 300-page novel – and we don’t blame them, being barely literate ourselves
Still, we are legally required to encourage you to read, and in this spirit of fulfilling our legal requirements, Gymglish has carefully listed five works of Spanish literature we deem essential in the quest to learn Spanish.

El viejo que leía novelas de amor, Luis Sepúlveda (1992)

We begin our selection with the novel El viejo que leía novelas de amor (The Old Man who read Love Stories) published in 1992, and written by acclaimed Chilean author Luis Sepúlveda. The book was extremely popular and sold over a million copies in France alone between 1992 and 2010, and we all know that the sign of success for Spanish-language novels is their French sales numbers.

When the locals of El Idilio, a village buried deep in the jungle on the bank of a small Amazon tributary, come across the corpse of a hunter in a canoe, they immediately accuse the Indians (the Shuars) of the horrid crime. But Antonio José Bolivar Proano recognizes in the hunter’s wounds, the attack of a wild animal. He roams the Ecuadorian rainforest in search for a jaguar he suspects is the culprit. The Old Man who read Love Stories is a book full of color and poetry. The novel is an ode to nature and the humans that strive to protect it.

For which level? The author chose to include poetry in his novel, making the overall reading experience fun and pleasant. If you do struggle with some of the words or expressions, we suggest you try to work out their meaning using the overall context, or use a dictionary.

Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1605 and 1615)

No list of great Spanish books would be complete without including one of the most famous novels of all time. Don Quixote de la Mancha, by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, is considered one of the pinnacles of literature, and even the first modern novel. The epic book was published in two volumes, in 1605 and 1615, and sold in over 500 million copies worldwide.

The plot centers on the adventures of Don Quixote, a Hidalgo (nobleman) obsessed by chivalry, and his squire, Sancho Panza, a poor and simple farmer. Together, they travel across Spain in the hope of committing heroic deeds. The novel has many interpretations; it has often been described as a social satire and mockery of chivalric ideals.

Did you know? The adjective quixotic (striving for visionary ideals) and the expression tilting at windmills (fighting imaginary enemies) both derive from Cervante’s novel.

For which level? Even though the book was written in the 17th century, Don Quixote is a work of literature that combines genres, and this multi-faceted approach to storytelling makes it the first modern novel. Given the complex nature of the story, we recommend this read for advanced learners. You’ll be glad to know that the Real Academia Española has published its own simplified version for school children by Arturo Pérez-Reverte.

Cien años de soledad, Gabriel García Márquez (1967)

A masterpiece of Hispano-American literature, and awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982, Cien años de soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude) was published in 1967, and remains one of the most daringly original works of the twentieth century. It is also one of the most widely translated Spanish-language novels in the world. The man behind this gem is the renowned Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez (also known as “Gabo”), one of the most important writers in Latin American literature, and a primary contributor to the artistic movement known as magic realism, which presents fantastical situations in a realistic manner.

The novel traces the chronicle of the Buendía family over a century. following their highs and lows. Beginning in the early nineteenth century, the novel’s time span covers the family’s rise and fall from the success of the young patriarch José Arcadio Buendía until the death of the last member of the family line. Beware: One Hundred Years of Solitude jumps back and forth in time at a dizzying pace.

The novel is known for its advanced vocabulary and complex metaphors, so reading it is sure to provide a stimulating, though challenging learning experience.

Did you know? Netflix recently announced the first even adaptation of this acclaimed novel. However, One Hundred Years of Solitude isn’t the first novel of the author to be adapted on the big screen: the novella Crónica de una muerte anunciada (Chronicle of a Death Foretold) was adapted by Italian director Francesco Rosi in 1987.

Rayuela, Julio Cortázar (1963)

Rayuela (Hopscotch), written by Argentine author Julio Cortázar, is said to be a precursor of interactive and digital fiction. What’s so surprising about this particular book? It can be read in one of two possible ways, either progressively from chapters 1 to 56, or by “hopscotching” through the entire set of 155 chapters according to a table of Instructions designated by the author. 

In the novel, Argentine expatriate Horacio Oliveira spends his days strolling the streets of Paris and his evenings in the Serpent Club, where he spends time with his Uruguayan lover, La Maga. Eventually, Oliveira decides to return to Argentina, swapping the bohemian lifestyle of Paris for a gritty existence in Buenos Aires. There he has a chance to start afresh, but the ghosts of the past continue to haunt him.

For which level? At five hundred and sixty-four pages, the purposefully difficult style of Rayuela will try the patience of even the most studious learner. The challenge is worth it – trust us. 

Did you know? Julio Cortázar was an Argentine writer from Buenos Aires who emigrated to France, like the main character in his novel.

Caperucita en Manhattan, Carmen Martín Gaite (1990)

This childhood classic is a perfect alternative to the challenging adult novels listed above. Written by Spanish author Carmen Martín Gaite, Caperucita en Manhattan is a modern adaptation of the timeless fairytale Little Red Riding Hood by Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm.

Published in 1990, this page-turner recreates the classic fairytale with a modern twist, transforming Little Red Riding Hood into Sarah Allen, a 10 year-old girl from Brooklyn whose greatest wish is to go to Manhattan to bring a strawberry pie to her grandmother. This contemporary take sees its heroine travelling into a very different forest, with very different dangers

For which level? This 200-page book read will engage Spanish learners of all levels and ages. Plus, the novel’s exciting plot and captivating prose means you won’t be able to put it down.

Bonus: El reloj de Arena, Jorge Luis Borges (1960)

We end our selection with a timeless poem from Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, El reloj de Arena (The Hour Glass). Borges is one of the most important Spanish-language writers. His work, which interweaves the fantastical and the philosophical, includes poetry, fiction and prose, and explores themes such as time, destiny, reality, mirrors and labyrinths. The Hour Glass is part of the famous book El Hacedor (The Maker), which also includes stories and essays.

Did you know? In 1979, Borges won the Miguel de Cervantes prize, and was a Nobel prize candidate for more than thirty years.

Has this literary voyage piqued your interest? Try our online Spanish course Hotel Borbollón for free for seven days.


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3 thoughts on “Cinco libros to learn Spanish (and feel muy smug afterwards)

  1. Pingback: Cinco Spanish-language television shows to improve your español - The Gymglish blog

  2. Pingback: A beginner’s guide to learning Spanish - The Gymglish blog

  3. Kirk Brocas

    Wouldnt the “list of great Spanish books” be very short? I have been thinking about learning another language with Spanish high on the list for the reason I am told its not too difficult to learn. but there seems to be buggerall reason to.

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