Last 11 December, UNESCO officially designated Barcelona new City of Literature within the Creative Cities Network ( The first City of Literature was Edinburgh, awarded the title in 2004 (see their handsome website, 11 years later, the list extends to 20 Cities of Literature, some a bit surprising given their complicated political background: Edinburgh, Melbourne, Iowa City, Dublin, Reykjavik, Norwich, Krakow, Dunedin (New Zealand), Prague, Heidelberg, Granada, Ulyanovsk (Russia), Baghdad, Tartu (Estonia), L’viv (Ukraine), Ljubljana (Slovenia), Barcelona, Nottingham, Óbidos (Portugal) and Montevideo. The idea, as you may guess, is to encourage international networking by promoting culture. Also, putting your own city on the world-wide map of culture.

Cities bid for the designation, as they bid for the Olympic Games and other titles and events. I have before me the dossier submitted by Barcelona’s Town Council, in particular by its Institut de Cultura (ICUB) (see Our first female mayor, Ada Colau, declares in her preface that “Barcelona is a city that lives literature and literature has always been part of its essence”, a statement that surely should make any teacher of literature very happy to live here…

Some of the strongest points highlighted by Barcelona’s application are that we are a city where two languages co-exist (indeed, the city is “the world’s largest centre of publishing in the Spanish language, and the capital of the Catalan language”); we celebrate yearly Sant Jordi or “the day of books and roses”; we have a variety of literary festivals (among them Kosmopolis and BCN Negra, or the crime fiction week) and book fairs; we offer plenty of courses on creative writing; we are home to a long list of writers; we boast an excellent network of 40 public libraries (half my fellow citizens have a public library card); publishing is a major economic sector…

The plan is to turn Barcelona into an even more active city as regards Literature, with a variety of new activities, including the establishment of a new literary centre for dissemination and research, housed at Vil•la Joana, the former residence of Catalan local hero writer, Jacint Verdaguer. I’m very happy to see that the dossier even mentions Eurocon (, which I’m doing my bit to help organize, as a major event on the horizon. And, yes, I aim at furthering contacts with the council in charge of implementing the City of Literature programme to see what we can do from the university.

If you’re an habitual reader of this blog, you know what’s coming next: how does the distinction conferred on my city for its active literary life agree with the lack of enthusiasm for reading I perceive in my Literature classes? I myself and all my literary colleagues, mind you, possibly all over the (Western?) world. As I read the dossier yesterday a few of my students came in for tutorials, and I asked one of them–who had followed my course with, I think, interest–what the problem is. Can you confirm my impression that most students in your class have not read the books and do not generally read? Yes, she said, no doubt. Next question: why? Her answer was that her generation has a great reluctance to doing anything out of obligation and that our reading lists feel exactly like that, like an obligation.

Obviously, we both agreed that this is a very hard problem to solve for, unless students are given the chance to choose what they want to read for class, there is no way around the practice of having the teachers impose a reading list. I did explain that we consider very carefully what students may enjoy but it just happens that some authors need to be read, otherwise you cannot claim that your literary education is complete. I don’t see Mathematics students avoiding certain class of equations because they just don’t like them. Also, and this is confirmed, my language colleagues complain that students don’t read the texts they select for them, which suggests that the problem is not Literature per se, but reading generally.

All this clashes, as you can see, very negatively with the celebration of Barcelona as a City of Literature, unless I follow the student’s argument to the end and conclude that, generally speaking, people love reading what they want, and hate reading what they need to read as students. My own solution to the problem, as a student, was to read what I had to read and then keep at hand something else to read for pleasure, yet those were other times.

The corridor conversations with my Literature colleagues always turn around the same topic: some students read plenty and enjoy it, but the majority avoid reading as much as they can. Teaching a text is fast becoming an absurdist exercise as you find yourself boring students who simply cannot follow you and, as I have already noted here, you also lose the incentive to improve your teaching methods. So, what can we do? I’m thinking of launching a manifesto and calling all my UAB literary colleagues to join me in doing something more active than simply complain among ourselves about why students don’t read. So, here’s the first draft.


As a student it is your duty to collaborate in your own education. No teacher can teach you anything unless you want to learn. The path to learning passes through plenty of autonomous study, for class time is limited. This means that whatever discipline you are studying, you need to read. Generally speaking, all university degrees require that students read as much as they can, no matter whether they study Sciences or Humanities. An attitude by which reading is perceived as an imposition is simply immature and in total contradiction with your own decision to give yourself a university education–it is the equivalent of an athlete refusing to train, and whoever has heard of a lazy athlete?
This need to read is even more evident in the degrees in which Literature plays a major role: Catalan, Spanish, English, French, Classical Languages and all their combinations, including minors in other languages, or in Literary Theory and Comparative Literature, as we offer you in the Facultat de Filosofia i Lletres at UAB. You cannot really claim that you know a language well unless you are familiar with its artistic expression, which is what we call Literature. There is at the same time, little sense in choosing a language and Literature degree if you do not enjoy reading. This applies to literary texts but also to texts on all aspects of language.
As Literature teachers we are asking you to bear in mind that we cannot work at the required university standard unless you read the texts we lecture on. We are well aware that few students fulfil this basic requirement, which is why Literature courses are increasingly harder to teach. We base all our methodology on teacher/student classroom interaction and on close reading and this simply cannot work if students do not read. It is boring for you and frustrating for us.

As your Literature teachers, we remind you, therefore that:

*you should buy a good edition of the books you need to read. Good does not necessarily mean expensive; many respectable editions of the classics and also of contemporary texts are available for little money. If you cannot afford new books, buy them second-hand but read on paper so that you can underline and make notes. Online editions can be a useful complement but none is up to the standard of paper editions, which usually contain an introduction by the editor and explanatory notes. Spending money on books is not only a logical thing to do for students but also an investment in your own education. This is, besides, the period in your life when you should start your own personal library.

*you should read the texts we discuss in class well in advance, making notes as you do so for class discussion. Take advantage of the syllabi or ‘Guies Docents’ (published in July) and read the set books in summer. Naturally, you should take part in class discussion, and make notes of what the teacher and your classmates say for further reflection at home.

*you should check any doubts and problems with your teacher; Literature teachers are always willing to discuss books, and will give you any help you may need. We also enjoy making suggestions for further reading, so do not hesitate to ask–this is what we are here for. You are always welcome.

*you should also read literary criticism for its content and as a model for your own writing. We do not simply ask you to read Literature but to be able to produce informed criticism on it. This is why it is important that you train yourself from the first year into understanding how academic literary criticism functions. Start by reading academic articles, then books (monographs, collective volumes).

*you should visit the Humanities library regularly, and borrow books. Our library is very well stocked both as regards literary texts and literary criticism. Take advantage of its excellent collection. And make suggestions if you think certain books are missing.

*you should train yourself into finding time for reading every day. If you are an habitual reader, you know that there is always time for reading. If you are not an habitual reader, then you need to avoid wasting time at other occupations that contribute nothing to your education. As long as you are a university student, your studies are your priority and your leisure time, although very necessary, should be reduced down to a minimum. We know that many of you work but, precisely, if you work to pay for your studies, then work should not be a major obstacle to study. If it is, you need to reconsider your situation.

To sum up: students must study, and study is based on reading. Above all, we teachers need you to contribute to your own education for we cannot educate you against your will.

Merry Christmas! And congratulations to all of us, Barcelona citizens, on our designation as City of Literature.

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