April 23rd is International Book Day. It’s the day of the year that I miss Barcelona, my hometown for almost a decade, the most. Every 23rd of April since 1930, the city has indulged in a multiple celebration of literature, roses, saints, and dragons. The celebration was the inspiration of writer Vicent Clavel Andrés, who convinced city authorities in 1926 to declare the 7th of October “el Día del Libro”. In 1930, the celebration was moved to April 23rd to honor Miguel Cervantes, Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, and William Shakespeare, who according to historical documents, all died on April 23, 1616. This a somewhat poetic assertion, considering that in 1616 England was using the Julian calendar, while in Spain the Gregorian calendar was still in effect.
The Bard of Avon, who died on the English 22nd of April and was buried the next day, in fact, passed away 12 days after his brilliant Spanish contemporary. That fine point aside, one is moved by the generosity of the Catalonians, who so proud of their own mother tongue, chose to dedicate the day to the undisputedly greatest writers in the Spanish and English languages, and who in honoring Garcilaso de la Vega, were among the first to recognize the importance of Latin American literature.
From Catalonia, the idea of officially celebrating literature spread to other countries. In 1996, UNESCO declared the 23rd of April World Book and Copyright Day, now celebrated in over 100 countries worldwide. What has remained an exclusively Catalonian tradition is the pairing of books and roses. People tend to say that women buy books for men and men buy flowers for women, but don’t believe it. It’s a book and a rose trimmed out with a sheaf of wheat and a cheerful red and yellow-striped ribbon for everyone on your list, and the longer you live in Barcelona, the longer your list becomes.
From the morning until fairly late in the evening, the major streets of the city are lined with booksellers’ stalls and flower stands. An impressive number of writers are on hand in bookshops throughout the city to sign copies of their books. People line up early and wait for hours for a personalized dedication from their favorite author. The names of participating writers and their schedules are published well in advance. This year, the bookstore La Central has attracted best-selling authors Javier Marías, Manuel Rivas, and Ángeles Casco, among a long list of others. The Llibrería Bertrand will host Lucía Etxebarria, and the wonderful Catalan poet Marta Pessarrodona will hold court in the Laie. It’s also a good moment to browse the vintage books on offer from the top of the Passeig de Gracia all the way down to the port.
St. George is one of Barcelona’s patron saints, and as April 23rd is St. George’s Day, saints and dragons round out the day-long literary and floral mayhem. Trailing back home late in the evening with a backpack full of books and an armful of roses, is one of the very best of Barcelona moments.