Dispatch: Reykjavik, Iceland
My Christmas reverie includes jingling bells and joyful carols, smells of cookies baking and evergreen boughs. Quiet corners of readers engaged in a story, thoughtful buyers browsing bookshelves and lively conversations over coffee about the latest titles—not so much. Except in Iceland. Welcome to Jólabókaflód, Iceland’s Christmas book flood.
The holiday cycle kicks off in September when the new books catalog arrives to every household’s doorstep. The selection of over 800 novels and biographies written in a language spoken by slightly more than 300,000 world-wide, makes this listing a hot item for Christmas shopping. E-books do not make the cut even though Iceland at 96.5% is the second most internet connected country in the world. Paperbacks fall short as well. Only a hardback with a colorful book jacket,the smell of ink on thick paper and wrapped for presentation satisfies the Christmas wish list here.
Iceland boasts a Nobel Laureate in Literature, 30,000 active novelists (one in ten is writing a book) and a de rigueur custom of giving books as gifts at Christmas time. This small nation publishes approximately five titles per 1000 residents, more per capita than any country in the world. Book gifts are unwrapped on Christmas Eve and families stay up all night reading.
The residents say everyone has a story burning to be written. Who wouldn’t be inspired by a dramatic landscape of mist settling between moss-covered lava flows, harsh seas pounding and threatening fisherman and homeland, hot plumes escaping from bubbling pools connecting the surface to the center of the earth? Officials abandon highway projects because the elves are unhappy. Iceland is its own place.
STORY-TELLING AROUND THE FIRE
The legacy of storytelling dates to the 9th century when Norse people settled here. The Norse shared sagas around the fire during the cold winter months. Saga-writing has been revived by Pulitzer prizewinner, Jane Smiley, author of The Sagas of the Icelanders and The Greenlanders. Smiley inspired Hannah Kent to write the bestseller Burial Rites. Other authors intrigued by the foreboding landscape of the Norse world include popular writers like Per Patterson and Stieg Larsson.
The holiday custom of book-giving began during World War II when Iceland could not import foreign goods. Paper was still available making book publishing possible. Books became the preferred gift. Book readings and publisher release parties take over the Christmas social season much like the cocktail parties and open houses Americans enjoy.
Icelanders, isolated from global sameness, adhere to unique imperatives. No one has told them this is the post-literary age. They consume the inedible Hákarl, fermented dried shark meat whose ammonia taste sends one running for a throat-singeing Brennivín vodka chaser. The potato and caraway seed vodka nicknamed Black Death, adds to Icelanders’ epic alcohol consumption.
Regardless of their odd palates, the country that turned Nobel laureate Háldor Laxness’ home into a shrine, complete with his vintage white Jaguar, and their voracious reading habits earn the respect of the world’s literati.
All this ‘bookness’ with its free-for-the-taking book carts on city streets, benches with barcodes to capture a book on smartphones, grocery stores and gas stations with book sections may have hit a limit. Lots of hardbacks get returned to publisher warehouses where deep discounts can’t move them. The leading houses seek to manage release quantities and market all four seasons instead of an annual blizzard in order to strengthen their businesses.
Book publishers seem unlikely to abandon the desire to find the next Laxness any time soon and will continue to publish new voices in abundance. Writers and readers throughout the world take note and lift a glass of Brennivín to that.