Buenos Aires: South America’s City of Books

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Buenos Aires is the birthplace of many a prominent writer, but it takes a visit to fully unveil the enduring love of reading in South America’s city of books.

Godfather of Argentine literature, Jorge Luis Borges famously said, “Let others pride themselves about how many pages they have written; I’d rather boast about the ones I’ve read.”

And read is what the Argentines do — on the bus, in the park, and in the myriad bookstores that are as plentiful as pharmacies and supermarkets in the capital city.

For readers and writers it’s comforting to see people reading actual books instead of looking at their cellphone on the subway, bus or in cafes.

A ‘Culture of Reading’

Literary sustenance for the soul in Buenos Aires is not limited to an insubstantial diet of romance novels and bestsellers — though those can certainly be found — but consists largely of dense literary and philosophical works.

A woman reading in the park in Buenos Aires
Reading on the grass in one of Buenos Aires many parks is a well-loved past time.

Book-loving portenõs (Buenos Aires residents) are familiar with Foucault, Nietzsche, Arendt, Shakespeare, Joyce, as well as the Argentine heavy-weights — Borges, Julio Cortázar, Ernesto Ernesto Sábato and José Hernández

It is impossible to meander through the Buenos Aires without noticing the abundance of bookworms.

“Just look around on the subway and count how many people have a book,” says Florencia Basile, of La Porteña Books in Belgrano.

“From ages 20 to 60, people read a lot here — there is a culture of reading.”

Buenos Aires’ Main ‘Book Streets’

A panoramic view of the interior of the El Ateneo bookstore
Buenos Aires’ El Ateneo Bookstore features a stage with live piano music in the afternoon

Wrapped in plastic to discourage sneak previews and summer rains, tomes grace the shelves of street side dispensaries, subway station kiosks of all the metro lines, and some of the grandest bookstores in the world, such as the opulent flagship store of El Ateneo, which is a bookstore located in a former opera house.

One testament to Buenos Aires’ love of literature is found right in the heart of Palermo, at Plaza Italia.

Right outside the Plaza Italia subway stop visitors can find 40+ stalls of new and second-hand books to take on the train, because reading a book on public transport is much safer and cooler than playing on your cellphone.

An outdor bookstall in Palermo, Buenos Aires

Corrientes Avenue, the main thoroughfare of Buenos Aires’ theater district, is also favored destination for late-night book browsing.

Where else in the world can one peruse the shelves at 3:00 a.m. after having a late-night porteño-style pizza nearby?

Latin America’s ‘Literary City’

Argentina leads Latin America in publishing, with over 20,000 titles released in the country per year. Buenos Aires is blessed with over 800 bookstores, the majority of them independently owned.

In 2011 UNESCO awarded Buenos Aires the title of ‘World Book Capital,’ in recognition of its many high-quality projects and activities involving books and reading.

The high point of these world-class programs is the yearly Feria Internacional del Libro de Buenos Aires (The International Book Fair) held from mid-April to early May.

For those already so inclined, embrace and enjoy wandering the aisles of books and the streets of ready-made benches.

For all others, let the Latin American bookworm bite and take a taste of the sumptuous, if old-fashioned, world of paper and print. –Alana Fichman

Ten Great Books Set in Buenos Aires

The best ten books to read that are set in Buenos Aires (archival photo of Jorge Luis Borges)
Jorge Luis Borges is one of Argentina’s most famous a literary legends and commentators

Lively and melancholy, with famous avenues and historic buildings, Buenos Aires is a metropolis that lends itself as the setting for many wonderful books.

Most readers are already familiar with Argentina’s famous writers such as Cortazár and Borges, but there are many lesser-known great writers who’ve utilized Buenos Aires as a backdrop for their work, some of whose work has only recently been translated.

HopscotchJulio CortazárAnti-novel/stream-of-consciousness/surrealistAn Argentine writer’s life between Paris and Buenos Aires. A book not necessarily meant to be read in chronological order, thus the title
FictionsJorge Luis BorgesShort story/fantasy/magic realismThe ultimate anthology of Borges’ fantastical short stories, which often draw comparisons to James Joyce
Things we Lost in the FireMariana EnriquezPsychological fiction/horrorUnsettling dark tales that highlight the corruption in contemporary Argentina
Of Heroes and TombsErnesto SabatoMagic realism/crime/historicalPartially based on a true crime story, this classic tome features a love story set against the backdrop of an authoritarian government
Thus Were Their FacesSilvina OcampoGothic/psychological fiction/magic realismA collection of 30 of Ocampo’s surreal and sinister vignettes and short stories
Adam BuenosayresLeopoldo MarechalAbsurdist-comedy/experimentalA quixotic roman-à-clef parable in which Buenos Aires is a central character
The Tango SingerTomás Eloy MartínezMagical realism/literaryA PhD student travels to Buenos Aires to study Borges’ essays on tango but instead becomes enchanted with a mythical tango singer
The Seven MadmenRoberto ArltDystopian/ Psychological thrillerA thief and an astrologer embark on a masterplan to takeover Argentina, drawing comparisons to Dostoyevsky
The Secret in Their Eyes
(kindle edition)
Eduardo SacheriSuspense/Mystery/ historical fictionA retired detective looks into an old case and becomes reacquainted with an old unrequited love. The movie is based on this book.
Bad Times in Buenos Aires Miranda FranceTravelogue/Social-historical narrativeA funny and accurate account of life in Buenos Aires in the 1990s by a British correspondent

Bonus book: Marsha Mehran’s ‘The Margaret Thatcher School of Beauty,‘ a novel that explores poetry and community within Iranian community set in Buenos Aires during the Falklands/Malvinas War.

The novel was published posthumously following her mysterious death.

• For those who don’t read Spanish, or need a break from second language overload, a modest selection of imported foreign titles are found scattered in Buenos Aires’ kiosks and bookstores, and a few all-English bookstores, such as Kel and Walrus Books.

buenos aires book city
City of Books, BBC video (link opens in a new window.)

• Even if you don’t read Spanish, when in Argentina you won’t want to miss Buenos Aires’ most famous bookstore, and one of the world’s most beautiful, El Ateneo.

→ Check out our Literary Tour of Buenos Aires

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