‘Tis the season to buy one of 800 new Icelandic books for your friends and family
Icelandic winter really, really sucks. It’s dark almost all the time, and the streets are icy and beset by freezing winds and snow. The mood of Reykjavík’s denizens noticeably changes at this time of year, with many people suffering sleep disorders or SAD, and generally withdrawing back into domestic life. It’s a time of lining the home nest, cooking hot stews and soups, turning up the heating, perhaps shying away from more social events than usual, and generally strapping in for the long, dark months ahead.
With indoor activities the order of the day, it’s a perfect time to engage with things that have long hovered on the backburner—creative practices and amusements, perhaps, such as painting, writing or knitting—or just curling up with a mug of coffee and a pile of books.
Handy, then, that Iceland is home to a seasonal book bonanza known as the jólabókaflóð, which translates literally as the “Christmas book flood.” Literature becomes a hot topic of conversation leading into Christmas, with people treating the gifts they select as a point of pride. Indeed, the bookstores of Reykjavík see an annual torrent of new titles hitting the shelves almost simultaneously, with shopkeepers bracing themselves for masses of customers aiming to snap up the most talked-about titles.
Old Icelandic proverb: books make good gifts
Of course, a Christmas book-rush is not unique to Iceland. Books are a classic present, ranking with an HBO box set for a sibling or a bottle of whisky for dad in imagination. The phenomenon of the Christmas book rush is consistent across Europe, with many national newspapers in England and France, for example, publishing an entire section featuring author top-tens and literary gift ideas. But here in Iceland, the ‘flood has some interesting numbers attached to it, and the feel of a more defined cultural tradition that makes it stand out from what goes on elsewhere.
For a start, there’s the sheer number of new titles that come out. In 2013, over 800 new books hit the shelves during the Jólabókaflóð, accounting for a whopping 80% of country’s entire annual literary output. This number places Iceland at the top of a whole bunch of international charts, including the one about new books released per-capita—in fact, it’s more than double that of Iceland’s Nordic neighbours, with around five titles published for every 1000 Icelanders.
Kristján Freyr Halldórsson is the manager of Laugarvegur bookshop Mál og menning. He sits on the “front lines” as the jólabókaflóð approaches each year. “I would say 60-70% of all the books we stock each year come out in the last quarter,” he says. “It’s getting crazy now. There are so many books coming in—in this store, we got eight titles yesterday alone, some by really big authors, so many releases just blend in with each other—people have to be really clever to rise to the top.”
Tell me a story
But, first things first—how did all this come about? Well, settle down, children—the theories on jólabókaflóð’s origins are many, and tap into various strands of culture and history that reach back to the country’s very beginnings. As far back as the 12th century, Iceland was already a Nordic literary leader via the sagas—that is, those famous historic epics about revenge, violence, intrigue, improbable adventures and ill-fated affairs, boasting a body count that makes Vin Diesel look like the Dalai Lama.
This love of tall tales and storytelling was woven further into early Icelandic culture in the centuries that followed via “kvöldvaka,” a time of the evening when members of the household would gather around the fire to carry out domestic tasks like knitting and sewing, inventing and reciting poems and stories as they worked.
By the 20th century, literature had became a source of national pride, with the country’s overall literacy rating amongst the best in the world. But as well as these cultural precursors of jólabókaflóð, there’s an economic story to be told. Around the time of World War II, most imports to Iceland were heavily taxed—with paper being a rare exception. This convergence of a strong literary culture and financial practicality clicked together neatly into the seasonal tradition we still see today.
Not waving, but drowning
Back in present, jólabókaflóð isn’t all fireside tales and bedtime stories. This unusual congestion of new books means that, inevitably, some titles are left by the wayside or buried beneath the weight of the competition. But the way that main publishers carry out their marketing is a problem too.
“The worst thing about the jólabókaflóð,” says Kristján, “is that publishers are really competing with just a couple of major titles, say, the ones in the crime-fiction genre. They get engaged in a kind of hyped-up chart race, and all the press is about just those few books.”
And with popular genres dominating the media coverage, it can be tough for books that lie outside of more commercial concerns to get the attention they deserve. “We have many very promising young authors,” says Kristján, “and I’ve seen their new works drown in the book flood. (pullquote)Great titles come out from some of Iceland’s best up and coming authors, but they just vanish. They’re probably in the back of the warehouse—behind all the shelves of new books, there’s a section they call ’the black hole,’ with all the forgotten books.”(/pullquote)
And once the “new book!” novelty has worn off, there’s currently not much chance of worthy contenders to reach their audience. “The lifetime of each title in the market is definitely getting shorter,” says Kristjan. “People often work on books for years, and then the release date comes, but within two months there’s a yellow tag on the cover, and the price is reduced from 6,000 to 2,000 ISK. It’s like a conveyor belt—it happens so fast, and before you know it, you’re falling off the end.”