|Buenos Aires has over 200 bookshops, 70 libraries, numerous literary magazines and journals, and large and small publishing companies [GALLO/GETTY]
"This book has not been lost. It has no owner; it is part of the Argentine Free Book Movement, and it was left in this place so that you would find it."
This is the handwritten message on the fly-leaf inside a copy of El paraiso de los ladrones, a Spanish translation of British author GK Chesterton's The Paradise of Thieves, left on a bench in a public square in Buenos Aires.
Anyone can take part in the movement simply by leaving a book in a park, a train station or on a bus seat, with a note asking whoever happens to find it to read it and then "release it" again for others to read.
This is the kind of idea that helped Buenos Aires win the title of World Book Capital 2011, awarded by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. The title was conferred on April 23, on World Book and Copyright Day, and the city will remain the World Book Capital until the same date in 2012, when the title will pass to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia.
In the meantime, the Argentine capital will be expanding the numbers of new readers and potential writers. In addition it will become the proud possessor of a multilingual library containing 30,000 volumes, a treasure store that comes with World Book Capital recognition.
In May, artist Marta Minujín will create a 25-metre high "Tower of Babel" in Plaza San Martin, a square in the centre of Buenos Aires, made of a pile of 30,000 books in different languages that have been donated by several embassies in the Argentine capital.
After Minujin's "urban intervention" has been exhibited for a month, the books will become public property at a new multilingual library, said Jimena Soria at the City of Buenos Aires Ministry of Culture.
"The UNESCO title is a unique opportunity to enhance everything that is happening in the book world in this city, as well as show it all to the world," said Soria, who is coordinating the Book Capital activities for the year.
"Buenos Aires has been, and still is, a city of books. Its bookstores, publishing companies, literary magazines and journals and libraries, as well as its readers and famed and prize-winning authors, all converge to make books and reading a cornerstone of our identity," she said.
Indeed, it is almost impossible to walk down the streets of the capital city without encountering colourful kiosks selling a wide range of magazines, or bookstores with new, old or antique books for sale. Some bookshops double as bars and restaurants, and provide a space for customers to browse the wares.
One of the rare bookshops is "La Libre" in the southern neighbourhood of San Telmo, which specialises in independent publications and rare books that are not available in traditional, commercial bookstores.
The city has over 200 bookshops, 70 libraries, numerous literary magazines and journals, and large and small publishing companies, including original initiatives like Eloisa Cartonera, established by a group of writers in partnership with informal garbage pickers.
A large number of programmes encourage the practice of reading, including projects organised by the Fundacion Leer [Reading Foundation] in collaboration with the national Ministry of Education, and the activities of the Abuelas Cuentacuentos [Storytelling Grandmothers], established by writer Mempo Giardinelli.
In Giardinelli's project, older women visit schools and read the children stories. The prize-winning programme, which has expanded throughout Argentina, has been replicated in Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela.
The distinction of being designated World Book Capital 2011 was marked by a ceremony at the International Book Fair, a major cultural event that has been held in Buenos Aires every year since 1975. The fair attracts Argentine and foreign authors, and is very popular with the public, drawing an average attendance of over one million people.
This year's book fair was inaugurated on April 20 by the winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature, Mario Vargas Llosa of Peru. However, his visit stirred up considerable controversy because of his outspoken criticism last year of the centre-left Argentine government of President Cristina Fernandez.
The city's love affair with books also draws tourists wanting to retrace the footsteps of Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) and Julio Cortazar (1914-1984), gaze on the scenes that inspired them, or see the house where the editor of the legendary Revista Sur literary journal, the writer Victoria Ocampo (1890-1979), used to entertain fellow authors from all over the world.
UNESCO's practice of selecting a city to be a base for projects to promote the art of reading began in 2001 with Spanish capital Madrid, which has been followed Alexandria in Egypt, Indian capital New Delhi, Antwerp in Belgium, Montreal in Canada, Italy's Turin, Bogota in Colombia, Amsterdam in the Netherlands, Lebanon's Beirut, and last year in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia.
"Buenos Aires is receiving recognition for its active promotion of books and reading," said Soria, who added that the city government intends to lend its support to a variety of promotional projects, such as Minujin's Tower of Babel.
Meanwhile, the anonymous Argentine Free Book Movement, which communicates its plans and activities through social networks on the internet, invited interested parties to mark Saturday April 23, the inaugural day of the Book Capital year, by participating in "a mass liberation" of free books.
No doubt unwittingly, the idea of leaving books in public places for readers to enjoy for free has a local precedent. Borges, a voracious reader, who is quoted as saying: "I have always imagined that paradise is a kind of library," used to carry a bag full of books with him everywhere he went. Absentmindedly, he would often forget them in some cafe or bar. They were left behind. Released. Set free.
A version of this article first appeared on Inter Press Service news agency.