Researched Works

Che Guevara: The Books and Authors Whose Works He Read as a Youth

Che Guevara's revolution started with the written word. His love of reading helped form a radical worldview. Whose works did he read as a youth?

In 1995, one of Ernesto "Che" Guevara's books, Notas de Viaje, was published in English. The Motorcycle Diaries: Notes on a Latin American Journey reveals his restlessness as a young man. It likewise reflects his burgeoning radicalism and heightened empathy for the underdog. The quest for knowledge fed his wanderlust.

A lover of words

In Che (2010), Jon Lee Anderson writes about how Ernesto would use the bathroom to read, away from the noise of house guests whom his mother, Celia de la Serna, wholeheartedly welcomed. Libraries also served as a place of refuge.

During the battle in Alegri'a del Pi'o, as noted in his Episodes of the Cuban Revolutionary War - 1956-58, a wounded Che thought of "an old Jack London story where the hero, aware that he is bound to freeze to death in the wastes of Alaska, leans calmly against a tree and prepares to die in a dignified manner. That was the only thing that came to my mind at that moment." This shows how reading planted the seeds of his idealism, traces of which are evident in a short story he wrote in Bolivia that talked about a communist rebel who mastered his fears.

Books as teachers

Aside from his medical books, Che devoured books that both informed and inspired him as a poet and diarist during his heydays as a youth. He read Pablo Neruda's Twenty Poems of Love and a Desperate Song and Francisco de Quevedo's Picaresque Sonnets and Romances, as well as those composed by "Garcia Lorca, Machado, and the Spanish translations of Walt Whitman and Robert Frost."

A Thousand and One Nights fed Che's curiosity about women and sexual intimacy. Anderson cites how Pepe Aguilar described his friend's passion for books: "He read voraciously, devouring the library of his parents. From Freud to Jack Landon, mixed with Neruda, Horacio Quiroga, and Anatole France, even an abbreviated edition of Das Kapital in which he made observations in tiny letters."

Das Kapital and The Communist Manifesto were authored by Karl Marx, the intellectual whose life Che wanted to write about. The works of Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Lenin, Josef Stalin and Jack London's "description of social class" further spawned his interest in Marxism. He also delved into his uncle Cayetano Iturburro's book on revisionism and reformism, Benito Mussolini's take on fascism, Alfredo Palacios's advocacy on justice, and Zola's critique of Christianity.

According to Anderson, Che also read Mein Kempf, H.G. Wells's Short History of the World, and Bertrand Russell's Old and New Sexual Morality. Likewise, he read Jawaharlal Nehru's The Discovery of India, as well as pieces penned by "Faulkner, Kafka, Camus, and Sartre" and "Ciro Alegria, Jorge Icaza, Ruben Dario, and Miguel Angel Asturias."

Moreover, Che made a list of the books he read. His compilation of bibliographies include The Contemporary History of the Modern World, Alexander Aleksei's My Best Chess Games, the 1937 Socialist Yearbook, and R. Bunke's the Manufacture and Use of Celluloid, Bakelite, Etc.

From literary bookworm to revolutionary

Quoting Osvaldo Bidinost Payer's observation that "everything began with literature", Anderson notes how Che's book choices progressed from fiction "to books with more social content." The youth who seemed politically apathetic to many of his friends was an information junkie.

Going beyond his love of reading, Che also traveled. His trips exposed him to disheartening social and economic realities in Latin America, motivating him to analyze their causes and to act on resolving them.

Armed with Marxist ideology, Che became instrumental in teaching poor Cuban rebels how to read and write when he helped Fidel Castro overthrow dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1958. Based on Douglas Kellner's Ernesto “Che” Guevara (World Leaders Past & Present) (1989), he helped improve Cuba's national literacy rates "from between 60-76% to 96%." Helen Yaffe's Che Guevara: The Economics of Revolution (2009) recounts the campaign he led, with "Over 300,000 Cubans, including 100,000 students, many in their early teens, traveled across Cuba teaching more than 700,000 people to read and write."

Clearly, Che Guevara, the young insightful motorcycle rider turned communist guerilla leader, viewed education as a potent tool to effect social change.

Other sources

Havana-guide.com. n.d. Che Guevara Rise and Fall. (accessed January 7, 2010)

Progressive Labor Party. 2009. How Cuba's Batista Dictatorship Was Overthrown 50 Years Ago. (accessed January 7, 2010)

The Ovi Team. Che Guevara. October 9, 2010. (accessed December 8, 2010)

Time Magazine. Bidding for Che. December 15, 1967 (accessed December 8, 2010)


Written by Leann Zarah (leannzarah@gmail.com)

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