I’m not a fan of general guidebooks about Spain but immersing myself in books about history and culture is always a pleasure, delving deeper into this beautiful and complex land. With that in mind, here is a (highly) subjective list of my favorite non-fiction to date:
Arts in Spain: From Prehistory to Postmodernism (World of Art) / John F Moffitt
Spain has been an important contributor to Western art, producing many famous and influential artists. This book encompasses the vast span of the Spanish artistic panorama — a good companion for a cultural tour.
The Basque History of the World / Mark Kurlansky
An enlightening and engaging history of the Basque region and its people, fusing political and economic history with cultural and culinary traditions — recipes included!
The Borgias: The Hidden History / G. J. Meyer
The history of Valencia is inextricably linked to the Borgia family (or Borja as they are known in Spain), the greatest Valencian dynasty. As popes, statesmen and soldiers they were at the center of the Italian Renaissance, becoming symbols of ruthless ambition and evil deeds — but is their infamous legend based on actual historic facts? The Borgias: The Hidden History offers new insight into the lives of the mythic Borgias. A fascinating must-read before a visit to the province of Valencia.
Note: In Valencia there is a cultural Route of the Borgias that brings to life the history of the dynasty.
Duende: A Journey into the Heart of Flamenco / Jason Webster
Journey with Webster as he learns the complexities of flamenco and searches for duende, an untranslatable word that refers to the feeling that is the essence of flamenco. If you are interested in flamenco music and culture, this is an excellent, engaging introduction.
Gaudi: A Biography / Gijs van Hensbergen
Gaudi’s work is marketed as the center of Barcelona tourism, making this excellent biography of the elusive architect essential reading for anyone interested in visiting the city. Written in the context of Antoni Gaudi’s Catalan nationalism and Catholicism, the book also provides a history of turn-of-the-century Barcelona and leads the reader through the design and construction of Gaudí’s most significant buildings.
¡Guerra! /Jason Webster
Another great read by Jason Webster. There are many (many) books available in English about the Spanish Civil War, but this is a unique approach to the subject that has left an lasting impression on me. Webster travels across Spain, exploring the lasting impact of the Spanish Civil War and the divisions that led to the war that are still be smoldering below the surface.
Homage to Catalonia / George Orwell
A classic. The first book I read about the Spanish Civil War that sparked for me a serious interest in Spain. Orwell writes a compelling account of his experiences in the Spanish Civil War fighting Franco’s fascists. A recommended read before a visit Barcelona.
Note: If you’re visiting Barcelona, you can stop by the Plaça de George Orwell in Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter dedicated to the writer.
Madrid: A Cultural and Literary Companion (Cities of the Imagination) / Elizabeth Nash
A wonderfully well-written exploration of exuberant Madrid, which boasts a very rich creative pedigree. An essential guide.
The Ornament of the World / María Rosa Menocal
There was a period of over 500 years when Muslims, Jews, and Christians lived together in harmony in Spain. The Ornament of the World explores the time of al-Andalus, the Islamic dynasty that still profoundly influences Spain today. For anyone planning a visit to Toledo, Granada, Seville, and/or Cordoba, reading this will put the Islamic art and Mudejar architecture into its historical context.
Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936–1939 / Adam Hochschild
For three decisive years in the late 1930s, volunteers from the United States arrived in Spain to help its democratic government fight off a fascist uprising led by Francisco Franco (aided by Hitler and Mussolini). Spain in Our Hearts introduces compelling stories of Americans who fought in the Spanish Civil War.
The Story of Spain: The Dramatic History of Europe’s Most Fascinating Country / Mark R. Williams
An essential history of Spain and the Spanish Empire from prehistoric times to the present day. It provides description and analysis of political, social, economic and cultural events which have shaped the history of Spain. The book includes lists of historic places to visit at the end of each chapter.
Valencia Noir – The Beautiful, the Fantastic and the Grotesque of Valencia, Spain / Isis Sousa and Ove Neshaug
“City of bats, dragons and gods. City of artistic daring over the centuries of history.” A wonderfully creative exploration of Valencia through its architecture, sculpture and painting that hopefully will inspire travelers to visit one of my favorite cities.