From Iceland — This Is Your Brain On Crack Cocaine

This Is Your Brain On Crack Cocaine

Published December 8, 2010

Each year, for about eight weeks, Icelandic book culture loses its cool and turns into a crazed media circus. When the clock strikes ‘October’ literature suddenly gets two-handedly drowned, literally strangled, with attention—having been mostly ignored or patronizingly shrugged off for the previous 43 weeks of the year (the final, remaining week, the last week of the year, is kept free for actually reading books). All of a sudden, as if somebody snapped their fingers, literature becomes important enough to warrant a series of author-interviews, book-reviews, the incessant parlour games of ‘best cover’ and ‘best title’, and the motormouthed drivel of ‘the author’s favourite recipe’ and ‘fifteen personal questions’. Automatic for the people, indeed.
All of this is performed in the rising harmony of what has been termed “the inflation of adjectives”, with books being judged as either “a superb piece of unparalleled genius” or “an utterly immoral diatribe which might have been worth reading were it not also death-defyingly boring.” Granted, there are varying degrees of poetic ecstasy and abject dismissal, but what remains is that the only question ever asked—in book reviews or among authors or readers— is: “is it any good?”
Now, given how many books are published in these eight weeks—this year 85 novels were published, 747 titles counting all genres of ‘book’—this approach to literature is hardly surprising. Reading and contemplating 85 books in eight weeks isn’t just impossible, it’s the dumbest thing you could attempt, as you’d probably get none of all of them and gain nothing but lost time. Therefore we try to figure out which books we should try before we approach them—to spare us the marathonian stupidity of trying to gobble up the entire universe in one swallow. But by doing this, notwithstanding all our honourable intentions, we turn literature into a competitive sport and authors into racehorses.
To further simplify the enormous task of sifting through a great body of literature in a manner of no time and no patience, we’ve abandoned the more complicated (and time-consuming) philosophical approach to literature, and replaced it with a culture of grading and gossip. The literati (popular and/or intellectual) seems almost exclusively interested in finding out where a piece of literature belongs on a scale of 1–10, discarding its ideas, its message or even its beauty (evident in the tradition of judging books on a sliding scale according to genre—for instance not putting any stress on the text in a suspense thriller) as irrelevant.
The argument for this ludicrous race is that without it Icelandic literature wouldn’t survive—financially— as people wouldn’t buy enough books to keep the industry afloat if they weren’t culturally required to educate their friends and relatives through the obligatory gift of literature, force-feeding them reading materials in fancy packaging. Intriguingly, it is ritually maintained in political speeches that Icelanders are a reading nation, while the fact that very few people buy books for themselves remains undiscussed.
Some people, of course, enjoy the excitement of the Christmas book-flood. I’m being a bit of a fuddy-duddy, honestly. Irritability towards this phenomenon is hardly news. And I can understand why people enjoy the flood—all of a sudden authors and (at least in a sense) their books are put in the limelight— with all its glitz and glamour, fun and games, rivalries, beautiful heroes and horrifying foes—and I won’t deny that it can be pleasurable and exhilarating, for writers and readers alike. But evidently, so is crack cocaine.

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