Quick, what was your first thought: excitement, an idiot or the search engine?
The term “yahoo” was actually coined in “Gulliver’s Travels” by Jonathan Swift.
Here’s another: Big Brother.
Way before the reality show or its use to describe increased government surveillance, “Big Brother” was first the dictator of Oceania in George Orwell’s “1984.”
Classic books have a lasting effect on both language and culture.
This is why classic Spanish books are fabulous options for learners.
Not only do you get to enjoy a great story, you also learn important cultural references while improving your Spanish. It’ll be just as much fun as reading in English, but the Spanish language and perspective brings an extra, rewarding layer to the mix.
Why Read Classic Spanish Books?
- Culture. Reading classic Spanish books will help you understand culture more. After all, the important works in any language play a role in related cultures. How many times have you heard Shakespeare references? Because of literature’s role in culture, it’s helpful to read important works in Spanish, too. Learning culture is an important part of learning language, so reading pinnacle works is a step in the right direction.
- Language. Reading in Spanish is also helpful to improve your language skills. With the context of a memorable story, you’ll learn a lot of vocabulary, and seeing sentence structures and grammar used within sentences and paragraphs will help you internalize the rules. Plus, the more you read, the easier it will get.
- Enjoyment. Reading a good book is always enjoyable. The same can be said for these classic Spanish books. They became classics for a reason. Pick one up, and you’ll soon see why.
How to Get the Most out of Classic Spanish Books
When you read any of these Spanish classics, here are some techniques to gain the most knowledge and skills.
- Read it in English first. Below, you’ll find links to all the books in both Spanish and English. Go ahead and try reading (or at least skimming) the book in English first. This way, you’ll already understand what the book is about. You’ll know the characters and you’ll know the plot before you begin reading in Spanish.
- Use study guides. Similarly, links to study guides are listed below. You can use these before you read the book to understand who is who and what is what. Again, with a basic understanding, the story will be easier to follow. However, you can also try using the study guide after you’ve read the work in Spanish. This will help give you additional insight into the novel.
- Take notes on language. These classic books are artfully written, so you will likely notice some language differences. Spot a unique verb form? Jot it down. Noticing an unusual language pattern? Make a note. Look over your notes carefully to try to figure out exactly what the author was doing with the language. While you might not be able to use similar tricks in daily life, understanding these intricacies of language will help you become more fluent. Use FluentU to make sure you understand everything.FluentU’s video and flashcard dictionary will provide you with all the info you need about a specific word. Give it a free try and see for yourself!
- Write down beautiful phrases. All works of literature have particular passages that stand out as uniquely beautiful. Jot down your favorite phrases as you are reading. Keep a notebook full of them, or write them on index cards and pin them to a bulletin board. Look at them as often as you can until you have them memorized. If you can enter these beautiful phrases into your memory, you’ll always be able to remember the vocabulary.
- Outline content. Keep an outline of the book’s content—in Spanish, of course. This way, if you take a break from reading, you’ll have no trouble picking up where you left off. Additionally, the very act of taking notes helps you remember things more vividly.
- Reread passages. If a passage is complex, unique or just beautiful, go back to reread it. You might even highlight the passage and/or dog-ear the page to make it easier to find. Rereading will help reinforce the vocabulary and ensure you fully understand what the passage means.
- Book discussion. If you have friends who are learning Spanish, try starting a book club. Choose a book that all of you will read. Set regular meetings to discuss the book you’re reading. Share anything that confused you, impressed you or intrigued you. To practice your Spanish even more, try discussing the book in Spanish.
10 Classic Spanish Books You Don’t Want to Miss
1. “Cantar de Mio Cid” by Unknown
English title: “The Lay of the Cid,” “The Song of the Cid,” “The Song of My Cid,” “The Poem of the Cid”
Believed to have been written between 1140 and 1207, this epic poem tells the adventures of the hero (El Cid) during the Reconquista (Reconquest), an era when Christians fought the ruling Moors for control of Spain. It’s based on a true story, and it was passed through performances by minstrels, so the written version is probably quite different from the original version.
It’s a classic largely because of its antiquity—it’s the oldest Spanish epic poem we still have.
Resources: “Cantar de Mio Cid” is available for free online in Spanish and English. Also check out the free study guide.
2. “Don Quijote” by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
English title: “Don Quixote”
Written in the early 1600s, this story follows the often-ridiculous adventures of the nobleman Don Quijote and his squire Sancho Panza as they try to revive chivalry.
Its stories are episodic, meaning they are brief episodes from the characters’ adventures. This will make it easy to read just a little at a time if you’re not prepared for a complete novel.
“Don Quijote” is often considered one of the greatest works of literature ever published in any language. The story is referenced in both Spanish and American culture. For instance, you may have heard the word “quixotic,” which means excessively idealistic. This word sprouted from the idealistic main character.
Additionally, you may have heard the phrase “tilting at windmills” which means fighting an imaginary foe. This comes from a scene in which Don Quijote attacks windmills because he thinks they are giants.
Since the novel is hilarious, easy to read and a masterpiece, this is a great choice for any Spanish language learner.
Resources: You can read it in Spanish or English for free online. The free study guide is also useful.
3. “La vida de Lazarillo de Tormes y de sus fortunas y adversidades” by Anonymous
English title: “The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes and of His Fortunes and Adversities”
Published in 1554, this novella is written as a letter in which the main character shares his life story. Each chapter focuses on his life as he was serving a different master.
One reason it’s significant is because many believe it founded the “picaresque” novel. This style features a lovable rogue, or pícaro, in episodic adventures. The style was later employed by Mark Twain in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
“Lazarillo de Tormes” was also considered heretical due to its anti-clerical content, and this is why it was published anonymously. During the Spanish Inquisition, it was even banned.
Resources: Available for free in Spanish and English. Try the free study guide.
4. “Cien años de soledad” by Gabriel García Márquez
English title: “One Hundred Years of Solitude”
This 1967 novel follows seven generations of one family. It uses magical realism (magic in an otherwise rational world), so it isn’t your standard family story. The first generation founds an isolated, doomed city that the future generations live (and often suffer) in.
This work is a major piece in the “Latin American Boom,” a time in the 1960s and 1970s during which Latin American literature took off and gained international recognition.
While it’s a worthwhile read, this is a challenging option. The complex prose and plot could make this more difficult to follow.
Resources: Available for purchase in Spanish and English. The free study guide will also help you.
5. “El amor en los tiempos del cólera” by Gabriel García Márquez
English title: “Love in the Time of Cholera”
This 1985 novel follows a love affair over several decades. A young couple is torn apart by the young woman’s father. Years pass, and the two find other loves. But after the woman’s husband passes at a ripe old age, she is drawn back to her original love. But after 50 years, is the love still there?
Gabriel García Márquez’s work is significant in general; however, “Cien años de soledad” is the more significant of the two works on this list. “El amor en los tiempos del cólera” should be a bit easier to follow, though.
Resources: You can buy it in Spanish or English. You’ll also want to check out the free study guide.
6. “Bodas de sangre” by Federico García Lorca
English title: “Blood Wedding”
This 1932 Spanish play is full of drama, deception and ill-fated romance leading up to a wedding. A mother is suspicious of her son’s bride-to-be, while the bride-to-be herself is nervous about her upcoming nuptials. But when the bride-to-be’s now-married former love returns, things take a deadly turn.
Federico García Lorca’s works were often avant-garde, challenging social and literary norms. He was also a poet and theater director, but “Bodas de sangre” is one of his best-known plays.
Think of it as a literary version of a telenovela.
Resources: Read it for free in Spanish or English. Also check out the free study guide.
7. “Ficciones” by Jorge Luis Borges
English title: Usually listed as “Ficciones” which means “fictions”
This is a collection of short stories predominantly from the 1940s. Many of the stories focus on labyrinths. They often incorporate elements of the fantasy genre to tell stories with surprising depth. They will make you think long and hard.
Interspersed English phrases should make the stories easier to follow. Additionally, short stories like this will make it easier to pick and choose what you feel like reading rather than committing to a whole novel.
Like Gabriel García Márquez, Borges was part of the “Latin American Boom.”
Resources: You can purchase it in Spanish or English. Be sure to check out the free study guide.
8. “Rayuela” by Julio Cortázar
English title: “Hopscotch”
This 1963 stream-of-consciousness novel follows an Argentine intellectual in the 1950s. Some of the book takes place in Paris, while some of it is set in Argentina. The book features adventures with jazz music, Bohemians, a circus and some unexpected deaths.
The book’s most notable feature is that you can read it in various orders—either follow it straight through to the end, or “hopscotch” through the chapters by following the “Table of Instructions.” Julio Cortázar was considered one of the founders of the “Latin American Boom.”
Resources: You can buy it in Spanish or English. The free study guide will help be useful.
9. “La fiesta del chivo” by Mario Vargas Llosa
English title: “The Feast of the Goat”
Published in 2000, this novel follows three storylines and two standpoints to tell the story of the assassination of Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo. Llosa shows readers the inner workings of the brutal dictator’s regime as well as the aftermath of the assassination from various perspectives, providing a comprehensive overview on the various viewpoints on the real-life assassination.
Not only is the book significant for the writing, it will also give you a more in-depth look at the role dictators can play in politics and how dictators (and their downfalls) can affect people’s lives.
Resources: Available for purchase in Spanish and English. Also try the free study guide.
10. “El alquimista” by Paulo Coelho
English title: “The Alchemist”
Originally published in Portuguese (which is very similar to Spanish) in 1988, this novel features a shepherd from the Spanish region of Andalusia who seeks treasure in Egypt. A gypsy tells him there is treasure in the pyramids. This is his “Personal Legend” or life goal. Along the way, he meets others who help him try to achieve his destiny and learns many lessons.
Its sparse prose makes it easy for language learners to follow. “El alquimista” is a modern classic largely for its (often profound) inspirational message on following your dreams and overcoming depression.
Resources: You can buy it in Spanish and English. A study guide is also available for free.
With these ten great options, the next time you curl up with a good book, why not improve your Spanish?
And One More Thing…
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Review a complete interactive transcript under the Dialogue tab, and find words and phrases listed under Vocab.
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