Fish with no feet. Politician humor. A cooking doctor.
It’s that festive time of year in Iceland, and this winter, these are the subjects of some of the nation’s bestselling books.*
The popularity of books as Christmas gifts is nothing new. But in Iceland, the giving and receiving of hardback tomes is as much a part of Yule tradition as Ora brand tinned peas at supper and the Christmas cat that comes to eat children who get no new clothes.
´Tis the season of the bókaflóð, or “book flood.”
The book flood is the roughly seven weeks before Christmas when the nation’s publishers release the annual crop of crime fiction, biography, cookery children’s fiction, and poetry. Some mark the start of the deluge by the issuing of the latest Arnaldur Indriðason thriller, always launched on November 1. Others note it by the appearance in the mail of the Bókatíðindi, the catalogue of everything published during the season. Or maybe it’s just the cascade of public readings and lectures delivered by authors during the increasingly dark evenings in an effort to share their stories and increase sales.
From the recent Book Fair at Reykjavík City Hall. Photos: Eliza Reid.
Whatever the start date, a significant majority of books are released and sold (with the exception of books in English for tourists) at this time of year, many in hardback and shrink wrapped to prevent sticky fingers from tarnishing a glossy cover.
And that “significant majority” is quite significant. You may have read the popular column on the BBC news website that explained the Icelandic phrase “að ganga með bók í maganum”—to have a book in your stomach, that is that everyone has a story to tell. It also stated that one in ten Icelanders will publish a book in their lifetime. It would be more accurate to say that one in ten will see their words in print (in, for example, a letter to the editor), but this is nevertheless an evocative way of expressing Icelanders’ ongoing love of the printed word.
Debate rages as to whether this addiction stems from as far back as the Middle Ages and the families who recited the Sagas together under turf roofs as a form of escapism from the harsh winter nights. Or whether this tradition comes from a practical need during the Second World War, when many items were in short supply, but books remained accessible.
Whatever the case, Reykjavík is today the world’s first non-native English speaking UNESCO City of Literature and the nation is justifiably proud of its unique and rich literary heritage. As to the book flood, it will continue flowing for the next couple of weeks, just in time for me to stock up on some presents.
*For those who want to know: Fiskarnir hafa enga fætur by Jón Kalman Stefánsson (clearly with a metaphorical title), Guðni: Léttur í lund by former cabinet minister Guðni Ágústsson, and Læknirinn í eldhúsinu: Tími til að njóta a cookbook by Dr. Ragnar Freyr Ingvarsson.
(Footnote: Numerous acclaimed novels and books of poetry are available in English translation. Read about some of them in our Book Reviews section.)
Eliza Reid - email@example.com
Eliza Reid is a former staff writer at Iceland Review and co-founder of the Iceland Writers Retreat, a new event to be held April 9-13, 2014 that is open to all. Renowned authors from around the world will lead small-group workshops on the craft of writing. Delegates will also tour the Golden Circle, sit in the cozy cafes of Reykjavík, listen to new Icelandic music, meet contemporary Icelandic writers, and—of course—learn about the country’s rich literary tradition.