The best books on Spain (by people who really get Spain)

The Books I Picked & Why

The Bible in Spain; or, the journeys, adventures, and imprisonments of an Englishman, in an attempt to circulate the Scriptures in the Peninsula

By George Henry Borrow

The Bible in Spain; or, the journeys, adventures, and imprisonments of an Englishman, in an attempt to circulate the Scriptures in the Peninsula

Why this book?

On the face of it, this classic 19th-century travelogue is about one man travelling through Spain and Portugal in the 1830s distributing Bibles… which is not exactly a page-turning idea. And indeed the first section – set in Portugal – is unbearably tedious (in fact, just skip it altogether). But once Borrow crosses the border into Spain it becomes a whole other book. It’s as if he can finally cast off his dour, pious disguise and write about what really excites him: Spanish Gypsies. Already speaking their language (the man was a machine when it came to picking up foreign tongues), he falls in with them almost immediately, leading to numerous colourful adventures as he wends his way in Quixotic fashion across the country. The tales he tells are exotic and Romantic (with a capital ‘R’) and capture something of the ineffable essence of the country: a playful, mysterious and elemental potency which over-serious observers and travellers rarely perceive (and even, in some instances, militate against…).


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Tuning Up at Dawn: A Memoir of Music and Majorca

By Tomas Graves

Tuning Up at Dawn: A Memoir of Music and Majorca

Why this book?

The books in this list are all written by non-Spaniards, for obvious reasons. This one is almost an exception. Tomás Graves is the eighth son of the English poet and novelist Robert Graves. He has lived almost his entire life on the island of Mallorca, and is, effectively, as native as they come. Tuning Up at Dawn is a wonderfully lyrical account of his upbringing, his memories of his father, and his life as a musician. It is deliciously evocative of a slower world which has now all but disappeared.


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Madrid: A Guide for Literary Travellers

By Jules Stewart

Madrid: A Guide for Literary Travellers

Why this book?

Hemingway (who might have fully ‘got’ Spain if he had been less obsessed with ‘being Hemingway’) once described Madrid as ‘the centre of the world’. Jules Stewart is a former reporter who knows the city like the back of his hand. In this book he provides a perfect guide for travellers (even of the armchair variety) around what is one of the most vibrant European capitals. From Dalí’s favourite café to the place where Cervantes drew his last breath, it brings the history of the place alive like nothing else.


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Forgotten Places: Barcelona and the Spanish Civil War

By Nick Lloyd

Forgotten Places: Barcelona and the Spanish Civil War

Why this book?

Another book which brings the history of a city to life. For years, Nick Lloyd has been leading highly informative guided walks around Barcelona sites associated with the Spanish Civil War, and now he has compiled much of his vast knowledge on the subject in this excellent book. Packed with fascinating details and anecdotes, this is pretty much the last word on the subject.


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The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain

By María Rosa Menocal

The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain

Why this book?

This is the best and most accessible introduction to the Moorish period of Spanish history – which stretches over almost 1,000 years – explaining how it blended with Christian and Jewish cultures to forge both Spanish and Western civilisation. The Moors are too often treated as an anomaly, as though they could be separated or placed in parenthesis, apart from the rest of the Spanish story. Yet they form an essential element, despite great efforts (e.g. by the Inquisition) to erase or draw a veil over them. A great book.


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