From Iceland — So What's This Christmas Book Flood I Keep Hearing About?

So What’s This Christmas Book Flood I Keep Hearing About?

Published December 13, 2013

So What’s This Christmas Book Flood I Keep Hearing About?

If you have read any guidebooks about Iceland, you will have read about the Christmas book flood, or jólabókaflóðið, which refers to the fact that a majority of Icelandic books are published in the run-up to the holiday season. It is in the ‘top five’ on any travel writer’s list of Factoids about Iceland, along with “Icelanders believe in Elves,” “regular people can read medieval manuscripts,” “the prime minister’s home phone number is in the phonebook…”

And don’t forget “Icelanders are inbred!” That one’s my favourite.

Yes, that joke never gets old. As opposed to the rest of the Top Five, the Christmas book flood is a real thing. It is driven by the tradition of giving books as Christmas presents. During World War II, one of the few imported goods that were not strictly controlled was paper. It was therefore relatively cheap to print books and therefore they were a reasonably affordable gift item. World War II was also the high point of Icelandic nationalism, during which 97% of all those eligible voted for independence from Denmark.

And buying books was a big insult to Danes because… they don’t like books? I don’t get it.

It had little to do with Denmark directly. In some ways literally, as Denmark was occupied by Germany during almost all of World War II. But Icelandic cultural pride was built on the idea that Icelanders had a unique heritage because of the literature written on the island during the medieval period. Which as guidebook factoids go is pretty accurate, though literate Europeans did not sit with their ink-stained thumbs up their asses for the entirety of the Middle Ages and tons of great works were put to calfskin from Constantinople to Clonmacnoise in Ireland.

Clonmacnoise? Isn’t that the name of the sound file that plays when an Apple computer is turned on?

It is a monastery in Ireland where the oldest manuscript of Irish medieval epic, The Táin, was written. But for more on that you need to read The Dublin Grapevine (Motto: “Fighting Irish stereotypes is a thirsty business”). But as a part of the self-image boosted by nationalists, Icelanders started to think of themselves as a uniquely literary nation. The idea of giving books for Christmas fit that idea snugly, and so this economically created tradition survived the end of import controls.

So this Christmas Book Flood is pretty unique?

Not really. For instance the French, who admittedly also have the self-image of a uniquely literary nation, have a pre-Christmas publishing season as well, known as the La rentrée littéraire, and if you wish to learn more about that I direct you to Le Paris Grapevine (Motto: “Shrug”). But nonetheless, hundreds of titles are published in Iceland in the months preceding Christmas, including dozens of novels, which is a lot for a nation of 320,000.

Only hundreds? The BBC told me that one in ten Icelanders will publish a book in their lifetime.

Employees of the BBC fact-checking department, if they have one, I am not going to bother to check, were sitting around with their ink-stained thumbs up their asses on that one. It would be a more reasonable statistic to pull out of your ass that one in ten Icelanders will see something they have written in print, be it an obituary about their grandma or a poem sent to their school magazine. You would need at least four thousand titles a year by first time authors to reach that percentage. This year, about 700 new titles were published, most by established writers.

If I were I guidebook writer, I would probably put that one-in-ten Icelanders publish a book factoid in there anyway.

Maybe it will replace “Icelanders are inbred” in the top five. Though to be fair to travel writers, that inbreeding factoid rarely appears in respectable guidebooks. While the Christmas Book Flood is still massively important to Icelandic publishers, other markets have taken off in recent years, most notably the tourist book market, making the business less focused on this short period of the year.

Still, readers must be thrilled about all these books being published before Christmas.

The lucky few who can read them, yes. You have to be fairly quick to reserve a copy of the most popular and talked about titles from the library. Or you can arrive early enough at one of the bookstore cafés to get one of the copies which are not wrapped in plastic. Most people will not read any of the books until after receiving them as gifts. Being an Icelandic literature buff during the Christmas Book Flood has been likened to the experience of readers in the Soviet Union when otherwise censored so-called samizdat literature circulated in handfuls of copies among dissidents, and many more people talked about them than actually read them. For more on samizdat, I direct you to The Moscow Grapevine (Motto: “Mostly not censored”).

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