Imagine this: it’s Christmas Eve, and after receiving a brand-new book from your family, you wrap yourself up in a blanket in front of the fire with a mug of hot cocoa and spend the rest of the evening reading.
That’s exactly how Icelandic people celebrate Christmas each year. This tradition is known as Jolabokaflod, which translates roughly to “Christmas book flood” in English.
Jolabokaflod started during World War II, when paper was one of the few things not rationed in Iceland. Because of this, Icelanders gave books as gifts while other commodities were in short supply, turning them into a country of bookaholics to this day. In fact, a 2013 study conducted at Bifröst University found that 50% of Icelanders read more than eight books a year and 93% read at least one.
Iceland publishes more books per capita than any other country in the world, with five titles published for every 1,000 Icelanders. But what’s really unusual is the timing: Historically, a majority of books in Iceland are sold from late September to early November.
Today, Icelandic isn’t spoken by many more people than the roughly 319,000 who live in the small country. But in 2009, book loans at the Reykjavík City Library totaled 1.2 million — in a city of only 200,000 people. There’s a popular TV show in Iceland, Kiljan, which is devoted entirely to books. And in 2011, Reykjavík was designated a UNESCO City of Literature.
So Icelanders love books.
“If you look at book sales distribution in the U.K. and the States, most book sales actually come from a minority of people. Very few people buy lots of books. Everybody else buys one book a year if you’re lucky,” “It’s much more widespread in Iceland. Most people buy several books a year.”
What kind of books, exactly?
“Generally fiction and biographies would be the mainstays, although it varies a lot,” “Two years ago one of the surprise best-sellers was a pictorial overview of the history of tractors in Iceland.”
That book, And Then Came Ferguson, wasn’t the only unusual breakout success. Another, Summerland: The Deceased Describe Their Death And Reunions In The Afterlife was another one. The book, by author Gudmundur Kristinsson who believes he can talk to the dead, sold out completely before Christmas 2010 — and sold out yet again after being reprinted in February 2011.
And Summerland was self-published — a fairly common phenomenon in Iceland. There is some kind of a myth that people like to tell here, that every Icelander dreams about writing a book. “And sort of 50 percent of those who dream of it actually do it. Before they die they try one way or another to write a book.”
A Book Catalog In Every Mailbox
The Book Flood tradition dates back to World War II, when strict currency restrictions limited the amount of imported giftware in Iceland.
“The restrictions on imported paper were more lenient than on other products, so the book emerged as the Christmas present of choice. And Icelanders have honoured the tradition ever since.” The Flood begins with the release of Bokatidindi, a catalog of new publications from the Iceland Publishers Association distributed free to every Icelandic home.
“It’s like the firing of the guns at the opening of the race,” “It’s not like this is a catalog that gets put in everybody’s mailbox and everybody ignores it. Books get attention here.”
Iceland is Europe’s most sparsely populated country, with just more than 3 inhabitants per square kilometer. So while there’s a high level of engagement, the Icelandic book market is still one of the smallest in the world.
Bryndís Loftsdottir, project manager for Icelandic books at the book chain Penninn-Eymundsson, says that until about 15 years ago, paperbacks were rare because Icelanders didn’t see books as something to be read and bought cheaply.
The success of translated Scandinavian crime fiction has made paperbacks more common today, Loftsdottir says. But the industry and Icelanders have been slow to move to e-books. Part of the reason is a consequence of dealing with a language that’s not widely spoken. But it’s also cultural.
The book in Iceland is such an enormous gift that people give a physical book. They don’t give e-books.
Watch the video and answer the question.
What are the people going to read on Christmas Eve?
John Cheever: Drinking, F.Scott Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby, Charles Dickens: Great Expectations, Dylan Thomas: A Child’s Christmas in Wales, Posy Simmonds: Cassandra Darke, Louisa May Alcott: Little Women, Charles Dickens: A Christmas Carol, Lisa Gabriele: The Winters