From Iceland — Books vs. Beer

Books vs. Beer

Published August 8, 2003

Books vs. Beer

Our story begins in a dusty library in a small town in the Icelandic lowlands. A young lass with brown pigtails sits amidst a pile of books so high the top of her head is barely visible as she cuddles around a thick tome with yellowing pages. However, her face is turning blue as she made the crucial mistake of sitting down in front of the shelf where the books about the Ice People and the Red Series are kept (editorial note: these are long series of romantic novels sold in every kiosk and read by every woman in the country at some point.) As the day wears on red faced farm ladies have been gathering around her in increasing numbers and have now nearly succeeded in smothering her to death. But still the girl barely notices her lack of oxygen or the surprised stares of other patrons as they bump into the child. Because she isn’t in the library, but in another country, in another century. Where others believe themselves to be treading on a moss green carpet she finds herself among violent waves beating her to and fro in a rugged wooden boat desperately searching for land. She is not little any more, or even a girl, but a large and muscular fully grown man by the name of Odysseus, ready for battle as the behinds of farmer’s ladies surround her menacingly like Cyclopes.
Ten years later a somewhat older girl finds herself in a sweaty bar in the centre of Reykjavík as the room hobbles back and forth. The cause of the floors unsteadiness can be traced to a considerable number of bottles and glasses with half melted ice cubes occupying a nearby table. She looks around, but instead of seeing a sweat drenched, bleary eyed mob shouting and wriggling without any sense of tone or rhythm, she sees wondrous creatures keeping pace in an enchanted dance in between fierce warriors who have no weapons but their bare hands, and she, just like the other princesses present, must defend herself as best she can. On the verge of losing her battle with the floor, she goes into the bathroom and holds her breath as she looks in the mirror. Through the fog of her red eyes she sees in the mirror a princess, a beauty queen, a sex bomb. All her previous thoughts of nose jobs or breast implants are thrown to the wind, she has no need for such things. She is perfect. Full of fire she tears herself away from her reflection and heads back into the uncertainty of the night. Searching for another island.
When the girl comes to the day after, life doesn’t seem quite as magical as the night before. Her heart struggles in her chest as she sits up and looks around. At first she doesn’t recognize her surroundings, but despair turns into joy as she realises she’s in her own room, alone. This time she got lucky.
At that same moment, ten years ago, the little girl is dragged back into her surroundings as someone closes her book and in front of her stands her mother, hands on her hips, having just delivered her from seeming certain death at the hands of the Cyclops. That time, she got lucky too.
It’s strange how little a life can change in ten years. At first glance there seems to be a world of difference between holding a library card and a VIP card for a nightclub, but is the difference really that great?
The average modern individual uses every opportunity to escape reality with entertainment and as long as he’s not bored he thinks he’s happy. There are two very different means to achieve such “happiness.” One is the reading of good books, which beauty queens keep telling us that, along with travelling and looking after children, is the road to earthly bliss. The other one is alcohol. The latter seems to be preferred, and in fact to be the major pastime of young Icelanders today.
When you read a book you become the main character, be it Julius Caesar or Minnie Mouse, and the characters´ doings become yours. Sometimes you might not condone the actions, or even like the character, but still you keep on reading.
When you go out and consume alcohol a process begins that you have little control over. Yet you participate, and even become a person that you don’t necessarily like, nor do those around you. This character is usually loud, arrogant, grovelling or disagreeable in some other way. Nonetheless it´s bottoms up and the game continued the day after or the following weekend. Both the book and the night out have a beginning, a middle and an end, but these tend to vary.
The beginning: Here characters are introduced and the tone is set, in literature as well as (night) life. It soon becomes apparent whether the stage is set for comedy or tragedy, whether dramatis personae become severely inebriated as the night wears on or order a taxi home within half an hour.
The middle: The plot is well underway and the party has begun. Twists develop, excitement too if the setting is good, and sometimes even romance.
The end: In most books things turn out well and everyone deserving leaves the stage happily, whether they have finally found the love of their life or have been saved from certain death. The same cannot be guaranteed at the wrong end of a night of boozing. Death (by inebriation) will most likely have conquered love as the leading man lies passed out on the couch drooling in the damsels lap, or the leading lady stands bent over a toilet bowl as a rather unimpressed prince charming looks on.
The event of the weekend can follow a person like a bad dream for many weeks afterwards, and most people know all too well the determination to never again drink anything stronger than herbal tea the morning after. It is rarely the case among readers that they resolve never to go past Donald Duck again after a hard nights Dostoevski, nor is there a suggested cure for them as there is for alcoholics.
Our conclusion must be that reading is a far more convenient, cheaper and safer way to escape this world that we dare not look in the eye. The same can be said of TV, computer games and other methods we use to enter the virtual world we desire. Why then, is alcohol consumption so much more popular? Is it really that much more fun?
(Editorial note: No, but it does involve the slight possibility of having sex, which a night of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City sadly does not often lead to.)


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