In Iceland, there is a long-standing tradition of giving books to one another on Christmas Eve and spending the night reading. So ingrained in culture is this that is the reason why the jólabókaflóð or ‘Christmas Book Flood’ happens, its name referring to the fact that the majority of books in Iceland are sold between September to December in preparation of this event.

Iceland, with a population of roughly 332,000 people, is a nation that loves books. It has more bookshops per capita than any other nation and the highest per capita publication of books and magazines. For its size, it also imports and translates more international literature than any other nation and, according to the BBC, 1 in 10 Icelanders will have a book published. In Iceland, there is a phrase: “ad ganga med bok I maganum”, everyone gives birth to a book. Literally, everyone “has a book in their stomach”. As far as figures go, this appears to be very true.

Around September, people receive a bókatíðindi, a free catalogue listing all the books available for purchase during the Christmas season and here people can prepare in advance for their preferred Christmas gifts. According to president of the Iceland Publishers Association, Kristjan B. Jonasson, it’s in many ways the backbone of the publishing sector in Iceland.

So what started this phenomenon in the first place? According to The Reykjavik Grapevine‘s Hildur Knutsdottir, during World War II, restrictions on imports to Iceland were harsh and Icelanders didn’t have the proper currency foreign products  severely limiting their gift-giving options around Christmastime. However, the restrictions on imported paper were far more lenient so the idea of exchanging books at Christmas became a natural one. Moreover, Iceland’s publishing industry, until very recently, lacked the resources to publish and distribute new books all year round, making the Book Flood a practical marketing strategy as well as a treasured tradition.

Selling all of one’s products in a single shopping season is financially risky though which is why more publishers have begun releasing some of the titles during spring and summer. While in Iceland it is still difficult to release a popular fiction title outside of the Christmas season until it has its own cachet like the Harry Potter and Twilight series, translated books can very often be sold immediately at any time of year.

Iceland bookshop
Image: Bryndas Loftsdottir. Browsing in a branch of Icelandic bookchain Penninn-Eymundsson


Literary Culture

Halldor LaxnessThis love of books is rooted deep in Iceland’s historical literary culture. With long, dark nights and cold winters, the island’s original inhabitants, the Vikings, needed something to do to wile away the time. Amongst their story-telling culture came riddles, poems and epic sagas. The nation’s sagas were first wrote down in the 13th-century which often depict early Icelandic history as well as heroes, feuds and trolls. Sagas of the Icelanders and the Poetic Edda are still widely read and was exactly the kind of material that so inspired J. R. R. Tolkien to read his iconic Lord of the Rings books. Literature also helped Icelandic identity after gaining independence from Denmark in 1944.

There are plenty of popular and influential writers in Iceland but possibly no more so than Halldor Laxness (1902–1998). Laxness wrote translations, plays, poetry, newspaper articles, travelogues, short stories and novels with major influences including Ernest Hemingway and Sigmund Freud. who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955 (and also Iceland’s only Nobel Prize to date). His novels include 1919: Barn náttúrunnar (Child of Nature) (1919), the controversial  Atómstöðin (The Atom Station) (1948) and Innansveitarkronika (A Parish Chronicle) (1970).

In the presentation address for the Nobel prize E. Wesen stated:

“He is an excellent painter of Icelandic scenery and settings. Yet this is not what he has conceived of as his chief mission. ‘Compassion is the source of the highest poetry. Compassion with Asta Sollilja on earth,’ he says in one of his best books… And a social passion underlies everything Halldór Laxness has written. His personal championship of contemporary social and political questions is always very strong, sometimes so strong that it threatens to hamper the artistic side of his work. His safeguard then is the astringent humour which enables him to see even people he dislikes in a redeeming light, and which also permits him to gaze far down into the labyrinths of the human soul.”

In his acceptance speech, Laxness spoke of:

“… the moral principles she [his grandmother] instilled in me: never to harm a living creature; throughout my life, to place the poor, the humble, the meek of this world above all others; never to forget those who were slighted or neglected or who had suffered injustice, because it was they who, above all others, deserved our love and respect…”

Currently, the favourite in Iceland is crime novels with sales figures doubling even that of its Nordic neighbours. Other loves include poetry, children’s books and modern sagas and every now and then there are some surprise bestsellers such as And Then Came Ferguson, a pictorial overview about the history of tractors in Iceland. Summerland: The Deceased Describe Their Death And Reunions In The Afterlife by Gudmundur Kristinsson, an author in his 80s who believes he can talk to the dead, sold out completely before Christmas 2010 – and sold out yet again after being reprinted in February 2011. It was also self-published which is fairly common in Iceland; unsurprising, given the idea that a tenth of Icelanders will have something published.

With the love of giving books, it is unsurprising that physical books are far more highly valued than e-books (and contrary to popular belief, e-books haven’t taken over the publishing sphere having stabilised, and print book sales are on the increase). Part of it is admittedly the consequence of dealing a language not widely spoken but the main reason is cultural. In 2009, book loans at the Reykjavík City Library totalled 1.2 million – in a city of only 200,000 people. UNESCO designated the capital as a City of Literature. There’s even a popular TV show, Kiljan, that is dedicated to books.

Clearly then, Iceland loves books and the power of the Book Flood remains. I hope it does so for a very long time yet.

Feature Image: Kate Ter Haar, Flickr, Creative Commons