Prepare your ears.
We’re about to break your preconceptions.
We’ve found a way to make reading in Spanish approachable and interesting.
Yup, you heard right!
We know that reading in your second language can sometimes be a bit of a pain.
Spanish textbooks are an almost-necessary tool for language learning, but they’re often so dry that you’d hardly count them as reading at all.
Meanwhile, Spanish-language novels are enchanting but they can also feel overwhelming if you don’t have much free time on your hands.
So if you’re looking to explore some Spanish literature without committing to a full novel, what can you do?
Why, find yourself a good short story, of course!
Why Read Spanish-language Short Stories?
Why are short stories the best option for those who struggle to read in Spanish? Here are three solid reasons:
They require less time than a full novel.
Reading a novel can be a serious time investment in your first language—so imagine how long you might spend reading one in Spanish! Short stories are a great way to begin introducing yourself to Spanish-language literature without making such an intense commitment. This is especially important to consider if you’re past a beginner reading level but not quite advanced yet.
You can jump quickly between regions and time periods.
Reading a contemporary novel from Argentina can give you a great window into modern Argentinian Spanish, but what if you want to explore how Spanish is spoken in Chile too? Or what if you’d like to compare a modern dialect to one that was spoken a century ago?
Though it would be great to read full novels to explore how Spanish is (and was!) spoken in many different parts of the world, this is simply impossible for most of us. Short stories are often a more realistic option.
They’re a fun way to practice a challenging skill.
If you want to practice your Spanish listening skills, all you really have to do is pop on some music or a podcast, kick back and relax. Not so with reading. You can’t zone out even a little bit while you read, and therefore many language learners find it an especially taxing activity. Short stories allow those of us with shorter attention spans to enjoy reading as well.
So are you convinced? Think you’re ready to hop into our first suggestion?
Not so fast—let’s first check out some tips for learning the most from short stories in Spanish.
Tips for Getting the Most out of Reading Short Stories in Spanish
Read with your highlighter
Whether you’re reading a physical book or from some sort of screen, don’t hesitate to mark any words that you don’t know. This is imperative to expanding your Spanish-language vocabulary. It also brings us to our next tip:
Read with your dictionary
This isn’t to say that you should immediately consult your dictionary every time you’re unsure about a word—if you do this, you might never get through your story! But if a lack of comprehension leads to you losing the plot, you’ve got no choice but to open up your dictionary and start figuring things out.
You’re not done when the story’s done
Once you’ve read your story, it’s time to solidify the new vocabulary you’ve picked up. Look at the words you’ve marked as unfamiliar and add them to your study routine. No matter how you prefer to learn new Spanish vocabulary, make sure to study these new words.
Check back on your story
Once you’ve truly learned your new vocabulary, it’s time to go back and reread your short story. Depending on how much you had to study, this process could take a day, a week or maybe even a month. Regardless, it’s a great feeling to return to a story to realize that reading it has become an easier and clearer experience. Don’t deny yourself this little pleasure.
These four tips should be enough for now to get you on your way to effectively reading Spanish short stories. So now, the moment we’ve all been waiting for:
8 Enchanting Short Stories in Spanish That’ll Make You Love Literature
1. “El almohadón de plumas” by Horacio Quiroga (1878-1937)
Though he also wrote plays and poetry, Uruguayan writer Horacio Quiroga is far and away most famous for his short stories. So important were his contributions to the form, in fact, that he is often considered the father of modern Spanish-language short story writing.
Known for his dark, at times even gothic style, Quiroga is sometimes called “the Edgar Allan Poe of Latin America.” Perhaps nowhere is this style more evident than in his short story “El almohadón de plumas,” or “The Feather Pillow.” Published in 1907 in an Argentinian magazine, it was this work that first brought him fame.
The short story tells the tale of a young girl who gets married to a cold older man and her subsequent slide into a mysterious illness. We don’t want to spoil the ending, but suffice it to say that it’s pretty horrific. Though the language, specifically the somewhat ornate vocabulary, can be a bit difficult, fans of horror simply can’t miss this one.
2. “La biblioteca de Babel” by Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986)
Jorge Luis Borges was an Argentine writer best known for his short stories, though his poetry, essays and translations also help solidify his reputation as arguably the preeminent Spanish language writer of the first half of the 20th century. Much of his work is philosophical in nature, though he also contributed to the fantasy genre. For this reason, he’s considered a predecessor to the “magical realism” movement that later swept Latin America.
“La biblioteca de Babel” (“The Library of Babel”), originally published in the 1941 collection “El Jardín de senderos que se bifurcan” (“The Garden of Forking Paths”) is undeniably part of Borges’s philosophical streak. It’s the story of a self-contained universe that takes the form of a library. An unknown quantity of hexagonal rooms go on seemingly forever, containing every possible ordering of the letters and punctuation marks. This means that most books are pure gibberish, but also that all human knowledge and every great work of fiction must be here too, right?
If it sounds a bit heady, that’s because it is—but if you enjoy stories that get you thinking, you can’t do much better than this. There’s also a dark sort of humor in the way the librarians react to their bizarre situation, so if that sounds up your alley then you’ll enjoy this story as well.
3. “Continuidad de los parques” by Julio Cortázar (1914-1984)
Julio Cortázar is the second Argentine on our list, and though he was born 15 years after Borges, most consider them of the same literary generation. Known for his short stories and his novels alike, he’s often considered “a writer’s writer”—Carlos Fuentes called him “the Simón Bolívar of the novel.”
Compared to the first two stories on our list, “Continuidad de los parques” (“Continuity of Parks”) is quite an easy read. First of all, it’s very short—less than two full pages in print. It’s also a lot of fun, containing a plot twist that gets you questioning the nature of literature itself.
It’s kind of hard to explain without giving things away, but trust us—this little story will make a nice break after the first two on our list, even if you do have to read it a few times to wrap your head around what’s going on!
4. “Míster Taylor” by Augusto Monterroso (1921-2003)
Augusto Monterroso, a Honduran writer and member of what would eventually be called the Latin American “Boom” generation, was renowned primarily for his short stories, which were often quite humorous and nearly always heavy on the irony.
Many native English-speakers are surprised by the title “Míster Taylor,” but that’s because the main character in this story is an American—a Bostonian, to be exact. After arriving in the Amazon in the 1940s, he enters the strange business of exporting shrunken heads. The villagers, who originally sign on to his business plan, have no idea what they’re in for.
A parable of sorts about the exploitation of much of Latin America by North American business interests, this short story is sure to give you a new perspective on the (often legitimate) grievances coming from the region even still today. But that’s not to say that the story is dry—not by a long shot. Full of dark humor and not-so-subtle irony, “Míster Taylor” is a highly recommended read.
5. “Lección de cocina” by Rosario Castellanos (1925-1974)
Despite her young, untimely death, Mexican writer Rosario Castellanos was arguably the most influential writer to emerge from the “Generation of 1950.” Far ahead of her time, especially regarding themes of cultural and gender-based oppression, her work has contributed to and inspired much feminist theory. All this, not to mention the fact that she was just a darn good writer!
“Lección de cocina” (“Cooking Lesson”) is perhaps an ironic title, considering the fact that our narrator isn’t much of a cook at all. A liberal, educated woman unfamiliar in this environment, the reader is exposed to her thought process as she attempts to prepare her first meal for her new husband. To put it briefly, things don’t go too well, and she resents the fact that this is the role her society has forced her into based solely on her gender.
“Lección de cocina” is not only a masterfully written short story, but also a powerful denouncement of limiting gender roles in a society that has historically been very traditional in such regards. To peer out a telling window into the traditional role of women in Mexico and wider Latin America, this story is a great tool.
6. “El ahogado más hermoso del mundo” by Gabriel García Márquez (1927-2014)
If Jorge Luis Borges was the definitive Spanish-language author of the first half of the 20th century, then the second half doubtlessly belongs to the recently deceased Gabriel García Márquez. If you doubt it, just take a brief look at his resume—he won a Nobel Prize and was called by his country’s president “the greatest Colombian who ever lived.”
Though it’s pretty much impossible to choose the definitive García Márquez short story, we’ve done our best with “El ahogado más hermoso del mundo” (“The Most Handsome Drowned Man in the World”). A fine example of the magical realism genre, in which fantastic elements are inserted into otherwise realistic environments, the story deals with the events following the arrival of a beautiful drowned body on the shores of a small fishing village.
Like many great works of literature, “El ahogado más hermoso del mundo” opens itself to a variety of interpretations and analyses. The most important thing for the Spanish learner, however, is that it distills the incomparable style of García Marquéz—best captured in novels like “Cien años de soledad” and “El amor en los tiempos del cólera”—into short story form. Enjoy it, and use it as a springboard to explore the rest of this magnificent author’s body of work.
7. “El cuento envenenado” by Rosario Ferré (1938-)
Rosario Ferré is one of those rare examples of artists with strong political connections whose work is actually…you know…good! The daughter of Puerto Rico’s third elected governor, Ferré’s career might have been helped by her family’s status and wealth but it certainly doesn’t rely upon it.
“El cuento envenenado” (“The Poisoned Story”) is quite complicated, but at the same time a lot of fun. Somewhat like the Julio Cortázar story detailed earlier, “El cuento envenenado” plays with the very building blocks of literature, exploring the potential of different narrators in this tale about a young girl named Rosaura. Or was it Rosa?
You’ll get the reference once you read the story! For a playfully masterful tale that also explores serious topics like the evolving nature of social class by one of the Caribbean’s greatest living female writers, you can’t do much better than “El cuento envenenado.”
8. “El Ojo Silva” by Roberto Bolaño (1953-2003)
Finally, it’s time to close out our list with an entry by the revered, mysterious and mythologized Chilean author Roberto Bolaño. Mostly unrecognized until the final years of his tragically short life, Bolaño has posthumously grown into a giant of Latin American literature, often called the most important Spanish-language writer since Gabriel García Márquez.
“El Ojo Silva” (“Silva the Eye”) follows a homosexual Chilean expatriate photographer who, though he tries his very best to avoid it, eventually encounters life’s “inescapable” violence while on assignment in India. The story captures many of Bolaño’s defining characteristics in one place—writers and artists as protagonists, travel as an escape route and a defense mechanism, an obsession with violence and brief moments of humor and light injected into an otherwise hopelessly pessimistic depiction of the world.
No matter how bleak his outlook may have been, Bolaño always found respite in literature, and his language—even in the story’s darkest moments—imparts joy. Expect to be shaken up a bit by this one, but also to emerge on the other side with a new-found appreciation for literature as a vehicle to escape from even the harshest of realities.
You’ve got a lot of reading on your plate, spanning seven countries and just about a century, so it’s time to get exploring. In the process, you’ll be learning plenty about the Spanish language as well as the tapestry of cultures and unique points of view that exist throughout the Spanish-speaking world.
Jim Dobrowolski is a freelance writer, a passionate language learner and the proud husband of a dentist from Mexico. When he’s not working or blogging at Spanish Learner Central, he might be found strumming a guitar, climbing a small mountain or exploring his newly adopted hometown of Buffalo, New York.
And One More Thing…
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