With its origins reaching back to the times of the Roman Empire, Utrecht is on the one hand one of the oldest Dutch cities, and on the other hand one of the youngest, with 70% of its 340,000 inhabitants being under the age of 45. Excellent educational resources paired with a wide selection of schools and universities ensure a stable inflow to the city of young people who unfurl the spirit of youth above its ancient walls. Quite adequately, the city’s literary mascot is Miffy, a character from a series of illustrated children’s books by Dick Bruna, with which millions of Dutch children made their first forays into reading.
The city’s young and dynamically growing literary scene is rooted in the more then 1300-year-old history of Utrecht as a city of literature. The tradition was started by English missionary Willibrord, who built a school here in 690, complete with a library with a rich collection of books. Utrecht was in many respects a trail-blazer of the following stages of European culture’s development. The first printed book in Northern Netherlands was produced in Utrecht in 1473, and Utrecht University, founded in 1636, attracted a range of luminaries to the city, among them René Descartes, John Locke or Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Associated with the city were also Zuster Bertken (1426-1514), the first woman in Holland whose poems came out in print; Anna Maria van Schurman (1607-1678), the first European female ever to study at a university; and Isabelle de Charrière, a writer, one of a few women in Voltaire’s literary circle. Literature, freedom of speech and multiculturalism have until this day been the cornerstones of Utrecht.
Several hundred writers, poets and journalists live their daily lives in Utrecht. The city boasts of 56 active bookshops (including the country’s largest online bookshop, bol.com) and is home to more than 200 publishing houses, including VBK, the leading publisher in Holland. The House of Literature is a special places on Utrecht’s literary map – an institution that seeks to support and promote the local literary sector, a venue of literary events held throughout the year, and a major partner of domestic and international cultural organisations.
Utrecht hosts a number of literary festivals. The largest of them, the International Literature Festival Utrecht, draws in more than four thousand readers every year to hear and meet writers from across the world. Another locally-held festival is the Literary Masters, each year devoted to the work of a different classic of world literature, for example Fernando Pessoa or Ernest Hemingway. Utrecht also stages DRONGO, the country’s biggest annual linguistic festival, attended every year by more than three thousand specialists as well as buffs of Dutch foreign languages. Also, the Dutch Poetry Night has been staged since 1980 as an eight-hour-long event where poets read their verse, with breaks for musical interludes, to an audience of two thousand. Last but not least, each year the city hosts the finals of the Dutch Poetry Slam Championship.