Some collect coins, others cars, but along with books and art supplies, I collect words. It's an inexpensive hobby (until it leads to more book buying) and a satisfying one. Like looking at the world with new eyes through the magnifying lens of fresh meaning.
The Christmas Book Flood
This one Icelandic word translates as the phrase Christmas Book Flood, which if you say it slowly, Jóla-bóka-flóð, makes sense to an English speaker's ear, even if untrained in the rounded flow of Icelandic.
In the austere realities that followed World War II, currency restrictions limited Iceland's ability to import products for gift giving at Christmas. The restrictions were lighter for paper. What was there to give for Christmas? There were books! So the idea was born and grew to a tradition of giving and receiving books at Christmas time. These are opened on Christmas Eve and it's traditional for families, undistracted and cozy, to curl up by the tree and read these literary gifts through the night.
Icelanders are the most literate nation in the world and per capita they buy the most books. Astonishingly, one in ten will also write and publish a book. For this nation of 300,000 that means 30,000 authors? The equivalent in the US would be an extraordinary number.
In this land of the saga, it's not hard to imagine such an idea taking off. However it is a fervor for the new not the old that drives the tradition, and the publishing industry responds with concentrated gusto. There is a frenzy to publish each year's offerings for Jólabókaflóð which launches the new publishing year like a gunstart at the beginning of a race. All the titles are released within a few weeks of each other and almost all book buying occurs in the leadup to Christmas. Every year since 1944, the Icelandic book trade has published a catalog of the year's new releases. The Bókatíðindi or Book Bulletin, is distrubuted free to every home in Iceland in mid-November and pored over with eagerness. In 2015 there were 842 new Icelandic language titles released, which ran the gamut from thrillers to poetry, recipe books to children's titles. And these are physical books. To an Icelander, curling up with hot chocolate and an ebook is just not the same.
In Book Flood season, the daily news carries details of the book sales race, who is ahead, who is not, and what surprises there are to enjoy. In this fractured and tired world, it is a pleasure to hear of such a simple way to celebrate: books, rest, family and reading.
The 2016 Bókatíðindi catalog:
An Island Idea
It's the sort of concentrated response made possible by an island life that I understand from a childhood in 1970s Britain, where three TV channels and a BBC radio upbringing, fostered shared experiences. Such uniformity of tradition is watered down by the diversity of a larger country such as the US. The wonder is that Iceland's tradition is only growing stronger in our connected age and that book sales continue to skyrocket. In the United States fewer customers, percentage wise, account for the nation's book buying, with a few (ahem, don't look at me!) buying much more than average. In Iceland a larger percentage of the population buys books than in the US, thanks of course to Jólabókaflóð.
An Idea Worth Spreading?
Just as the Danish concept of Hygge is taking England by storm, could we see a new 'reading under the Christmas tree' trend emerge anytime soon?
As a pioneer of World Book Day in the UK, London journalist Christopher Norris was researching the Icelandic book industry when he came across the concept of Jólabókaflóð in October 2015. He has been promoting it ever since.
"I realised that the Icelandic tradition of Jólabókaflóð offered a fabulous opportunity to promote book buying and reading within the same initiative, so the seeds of the 'Jolabokaflod Book Campaign' were planted."
Norris raised money this summer to introduce Icelandic authors in translation to English libraries. Six UK libraries received the donations.
He now aims to "introduce the spirit of Jólabókaflóð to the UK and beyond, to encourage people everywhere to make the Icelandic tradition part of the way they celebrate Christmas." He also hopes to promote an English version of the Book Bulletin online. Included in the campaign is a Jólabókaflóð bookplate for adding to book gifts you give this season. However the book campaign also centers around the promotion of buying, giving and reading all year long. Because book gifts are not just for Christmas.
Norris concludes, "There are always moments in every household when there is a temptation to switch on the television or play a computer game. Jólabókaflóð encourages people to make time for family reading over the festive season and reminds everyone that reading for pleasure is fun and therapeutic."
I don't need an excuse to enjoy a good book but meeting this delightful tradition of book reveling is a heartwarming reminder to keep the simple and the peaceful in Christmas.
So what title would be on your Christmas Book Flood?!