Rio de Janeiro is a city rich in culture, food, music and more. From Carnaval to Christ the Redeemer to any number of other beautiful sights and celebrations, Rio is a massive region with so much to explore. There are many ways in which you could begin to explore the city, but one of the best ways to do so without even leaving your home is by reading some of the great books about Rio de Janeiro.
We chose 10 of our favorite books about Rio to give you an introduction to the literature of the city. While it’s impossible to distill a place into just a few novels and nonfiction works, these should give you a starting place to dive in and learn about the city and the Cariocas (residents of Rio). While many of these are written in Portuguese — and we encourage you to try reading them in the original if you’re learning the language — they’re all available in English as of this writing.
Nonfiction Books About Rio De Janeiro
For The Wide-Ranging Reader: The Rio De Janeiro Reader Edited By Darlyle Williams, Amy Chakzel And Paulo Knauss
The Rio de Janeiro Reader is part of a whole slew of anthologies on various countries and cities published by Duke University Press. Drawing on essays, articles, academic writing and even fiction and poetry, the books trace four and a half centuries of history. This book can be a bit overwhelming if you read it straight through, but it’s a great tome you can dip in and out of to find the topics that interest you most.
For The Historian: Rio De Janeiro By Luis Eduardo Soares
If you’re looking for a straightforward history of the city since 1964, Luis Eduardo Soares’ Rio de Janeiro is a solid option. Soares is a sociologist and a novelist, and he brings these skills to crafting a rich narrative of the city, featuring the people living on the outskirts of society as much as those in power. The book can be a tough read, as Soares doesn’t shy away from detailing the violent history of the city, as well as the joy and celebration that continued in defiance of that violence.
For The Person Who Thrives In The Sun: From Sea-Bathing To Beach-Going By B.J. Barickman
We humans love to spend time on the beach, so much so it can feel like a primal urge. And yet, it’s only in the past few centuries that throwing a towel down on the sand became a common leisure activity. In From Sea-Bathing to Beach-Going, author B.J. Barickman zooms in on the practice to explore how the leisure activity started and how it evolved into a central tenet of Rio de Janeiro’s identity. It’s a bit academic for a beach read, but the book presents an interesting, complex story of a seemingly simple concept.
For The Musician: Tropical Truth By Caetano Veloso
Rio de Janeiro is famous for samba and its offshoot bossa nova, but those are only one part of a larger story of Brazilian music. In the 1960s, Caetano Veloso and other Brazilian artists developed a movement called Tropicália, which fused traditional Brazilian genres with the newer influences coming from all over the world. In Tropical Truth, Veloso writes a memoir of his life and the movement (both of which extend beyond the borders of Rio). It also highlights how the art interacted with the larger political changes of the 1960s.
For The Sports Fan: Futebol By Alex Bellos
There’s really no question as to which sport is most popular in Brazil, because there’s only one possible answer: football. That’s been the case since at least 1958, when international sensation Pelé was the youngest person to play in the final match of the World Cup. In Futebol, journalist Alex Bellos explores how the sport became, as it says in the book’s subtitle, the Brazilian way of life. The book originally came out in 2002, but it was updated in 2014 in preparation for Rio de Janeiro’s World Cup, adding in the major football events of the first part of the 21st century.
Fiction Books About Rio De Janeiro
For The Short Story Connoisseur: The Book Of Rio Edited By Katie Slade And Toni Marques
Anthologies of short stories are a great way to get multiple perspectives on the same place. The Book of Rio collects 10 stories from Brazilian authors, all set in the titular city. The stories are set in various locales and times, offering views of the LGBTQ scene, the working-class laborers and life under military dictatorship. No matter what fiction you like, this book will help you discover a Brazilian author whose work you might fall in love with.
For The Classics Reader: The Posthumous Memoirs Of Brás Cubas By Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis
One of the most important Brazilian writers to have ever lived, Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis helped kickstart a literary movement with The Posthumous Memoirs Of Brás Cubas. The book is a fake autobiography of a man who uses the opportunity to reminisce on his failures and take aim at the people and lifestyles in 19th century Rio de Janeiro. While that sounds somewhat straightforward, the novel is anything but. The narrator, as the title suggests, is dead, and the style shifts from chapter to chapter, making for a fascinating read.
For The Part-Time Philosopher: The Hour Of The Star By Clarice Lispector
Clarice Lispector is another massive name in Brazilian literature. She wrote countless beloved novels and short stories before her death in 1977. The Hour of the Star is the story of a woman whose innocence is slowly devoured by her difficult life. The story is told by someone else entirely, however, who addresses the reader directly very often and uses the woman’s life as a way to contemplate identity. As with most Clarice Lispector works, the result is strange and compelling.
For The Thrill Seeker: City Of God By Paulo Lins
One of the landmarks of Brazilian literature, City of God tells the story of a favela on the outskirts of Rio, and what happened to the city when cocaine led to violent gang wars in the 1970s and ‘80s. The book captures the juxtaposition of Rio’s two extremes: violence and beauty. While it was a book first, City of God is now possibly more famous for its movie adaptation of the same name, which is considered one of the best films of the 21st century (so far).
For The Novella Devourer: Ways To Disappear By Idra Novey
When a famous Brazilian novelist goes missing, her American translator goes down to Rio de Janeiro to see what she can find out. When she gets there, she runs into the author’s resistant family members and her burnt out editor. Ways to Disappear plays with some fun ideas about translation and authorship, but doesn’t get too bogged down in philosophical rumination. It’s a fast-paced romp through a city filled with strange characters, secrets and danger.