Melbourne: UNESCO City of Literature

Book lovers will enjoy Melbourne’s strong literary history, myriad independent bookstores, and related festivals and events.

The city of Melbourne is recognized as Australia’s cultural center and delights in bringing literature to the people.

Three days before the 2008 Melbourne Writers Festival, the city buzzed about its successful bid to become the second UNESCO City of Literature. Like the first city, Edinburgh, the designation recognizes Melbourne’s ongoing history of good writing, a healthy publishing scene and committed readers. In late 2009, the new centerpiece of Melbourne’s literary landscape, the Centre for Books and Ideas at the State Library of Victoria, will be completed.

For visitors interested in literature, there’s a steady stream of events and a range of quality bookstores to explore.

A Little Literary History

Perhaps because Melbourne seems to sit at the end of the world, the city breeds and attracts colorful characters with stories to tell. Whether locally grown or recently settled, writers of all kinds find a happy home in Melbourne.

Frank Hardy’s 1950 depiction of the Melbourne underworld in Power Without Glory received a controversial reception but set the literary scene alight. Thinly veiled characters represented the gangsters and government officials of the time, much to their disgust, but readers’ pleasure. The novel remains a cornerstone of Melbourne literature, and paved the way for the authors writing in, and about, the city today.

More recently, Melbourne authors such as Helen Garner, Shane Maloney, Brian Castro, Elliott Perlman, Raimond Gaita, Robert Dessaix, Arnold Zable and Christos Tsiolkas have all been prolific in their literary output, particularly about Melbourne. Other famous Melbourne literary expats include Peter Carey, Germaine Greer and Lily Brett. Of course, no list of famous Melbourne writers is complete without the housewife superstar, global phenomenon and sometime author Dame Edna Everage, portrayed by comedian Barry Humphries.   

Writers Festivals

Melbourne plays host to a wide range of festivals focused on writers and writing throughout the year.

First amongst them, the Melbourne Writers Festival, began in 1986. For 10 days in August, writers and readers from around the world descend on the city to attend forums, launches and debates. The list of past attendees includes J.M. Coetzee, Graham Swift, Frank McCourt, Ian Rankin, E. Annie Proulx, P.D. James, Ben Okri, Zadie Smith, Bill Bryson, Isabel Allende, Augusten Burroughs and Dave Eggers—just a few who have shared their writing wisdom in Melbourne.

For budding authors, the festival delivers a range of professional development workshops hosted by working professionals. In 2008 these included Making the Past Present, Writing from Research, Imaginative Risk and Persuasion, and Beyond Your Navel. These sessions are always a highlight of the festival.

Each May, the Emerging Writers’ Festival brings together writers, editors and publishers to promote the work of the best up-and-coming writers.

In addition to these festivals, several others include comprehensive literary events. The Melbourne International Arts Festival in October, the Melbourne Fringe Festival from September to October and the biennial Next Wave Festival in May all showcase quality local and international writing.

Best Bookstores in Melbourne

Melburnians love to read, and the city is blessed with some excellent independent bookstores to fuel their passion.

The Readings group of stores has grown from one Carlton store to five scattered around the city, but stays true to its independent roots. From latest releases to hard-to-find treasures, Readings is Melbourne’s premier bookstore with a passionate, knowledgeable staff. Keep an eye out for special events, book launches and readings by famous authors that might be held during your Melbourne vacation.

Other specialist independent stores include:

Hill of Content Bookshop for latest release fiction and non-fiction.

Kay Craddock for antiquarian and specialist titles.

Books for Cooks, a new and antiquarian cookbook shop.

Polyester for downright bizarre counter-culture titles.

Paperback Bookshop for fiction and general interest.

Minotaur for graphic novels, science fiction and comics.

Metropolis for art, design, fashion and photography titles.

Literary Walking Tour

To delve further into the city’s literary secrets, take a two-hour walking tour led by Hidden Secrets Tours (whose other walking tours include Lanes and Arcades, and Architecture tours). Initially designed for the Writers Festival, the tour was so successful, it’s now a permanent offering. The tour meets at Federation Square, costs AUD$60 (about US$40), and includes coffee and biscuits at its finish.

Destinations: Melbourne

Themes: Urban Endeavors

Activities: Arts and Entertainment