On Iceland’s Yule Book Flood

I have loved Iceland since grad school. I took some Old Norse classes, read some Icelandic history, and even found a way to study one summer in Reykjavik, glacier-climbing and geyser-watching in person. The Icelandic language is quite conservative (read: “it hasn’t changed much”) due to isolation and intention, so folks who speak modern Icelandic can read Old Norse. And they do—Icelandic kids read sagas like American kids read Tall Tales. My favorite word in the world (which is saying a lot—I like a LOT of words) is the Icelandic noun uppivǫzlumaðr, which means a “pushy, contentious/tempestuous man.”
All of this awesomeness pales in comparison, though, to the best thing about modern Icelandic culture: the Yule Book Flood. On Christmas Eve in Iceland, people exchange books and turn in early to read and eat chocolate in bed. These are my people.
Iceland has always been exceptionally literate, producing long, complicated sagas and dense, interlocking poems since the Middle Ages, as well as vast corpuses of legal texts and proceedings. Today Iceland remains extremely literate, with more books printed per capita than any other country, and with one in ten people publishing a book.
The Yule Book Flood, though, has a little more to do with happenstance than spontaneous awesomeness. During World War II, strict restrictions on imported giftware made paper, which wasn’t taxed as highly, more desirable. So everyone started buying books for gifts, and it stuck.
On November 1st, the catalog of all the new books comes out and is delivered all over the country. Fiction and biography sell the most, so I love to imagine a whole nation settling down to storytime, chocolate in hand.
How do we bring this kind of book-love to the US? 
I once saw on Pinterest a cute idea of wrapping up a picture book for every day of Advent to read a special holiday story. That was great, and I bought a few new books for it and dug out some other, less recently read books, but it failed ultimately, because my kids were never satisfied with one picture book. They were used to five or more a night, so they wanted me to wrap five a night instead of this one-book nonsense. Thus ended the Book Advent tradition.
I do give books for holidays—birthdays and Christmas—but since they also get family presents on Christmas Eve at my house (an age-old Baker strategy to stretch out the holiday), we tend to play games on Christmas Eve together, not read books by ourselves.
But in the years to come, when our munchkins have established their own households and traditions, I see a Baby Book Flood in our future.Two little old married people snuggled down with new books (though Rob will likely be listening to his on ear buds or whatever replaces them) and plenty of chocolate. I’ll insist on the chocolate.
Happy holidays, everyone.
Picture Books

Holiday Picture Book Extravaganza

Ok, maybe it’s not an extravaganza, but it’s one more than the last two years. Yay!
I haul out all our holiday picture books from the rec room for the month of December every year. When the kids were little, it meant we read holiday picture books almost exclusively for story time. Now that they’re big, it means we all sort of steal one and snuggle down surreptitiously for ten minutes of delight and nostalgia before going back to whatever homework/grading/finals sort of demand we’re facing.
This year I have a mix of old favorites and new treasures—from the traditional 12 Days of Christmas to the Sugar Plum Fairy who happens to have two dads. And then there’s the happy pagan winter tale, slightly updated, of Lucia, the little girl who faces down trolls to bring back the light.
Whether you have someone young to share these with or not, I promise they’re all worth your time.
1. Laurel Long’s “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is far and away the most visually stunning version I have ever seen. I have loved her work for years, especially her fairy tales “The Lady and the Lion” and “The Magic Nesting Doll,” but this one tops everything she’s ever done in my opinion. She includes each of the previous list of element in every page, so you can search for the partridge in every spread and the two turtle doves after the second, and all of them—ALL OF THEM—in the last spread. In the tradition of Graeme Base, this is amazing work.
2. “Lucia and the Light” is a rework of the trickster tale where the hero goes to fetch the sun from thieves. In Phyllis Root’s version, illustrated with big-eyed wonder by Mary Grandpré, the hero is a little girl whose name means ‘light,’ and the thieves are giant rock trolls. Lucia is loving and clever and brave, and she has a milk-white cat who is part sidekick, part familiar, and all delightful. My daughter was four when we got this, and she still reads it when I pull it out.
3. Do you know I love bunnies? And Nordic things? Especially gnomes, or as the Swedes call them, tomten? Ulf Stark and Eva Eriksson have a couple books out about “The Yule Tomte and the Little Rabbits” and one for Midsummer as well. The stories are sweet, and the illustrations are precious. They’re aimed at little ones, maybe 3-7 years, but I enjoy them both.
4. This year’s new discovery was “Plum: How the Sugar Plum Fairy Got Her Wings” by Sean Hayes and Scott Icenogle of Will and Grace fame, illustrated by Robin Thompson. This is the little-known backstory of the plucky orphan who becomes the princess of the Land of Sweets, and, when she’s learned to be generous of spirit, she earns her fairy wings. Pretty sweet.
5. Finally, there is “Auntie Claus” by Elise Primavera, another of my favorites from reading with the kids. Auntie Claus is Santa’s sister, and little Sophie sneaks out and stows away to learn the family secrets. This is imaginative and funny, and there’s a rule-spouting elf named Mr. Pudding.  I’m thinking that should be enough. If it’s not, the illustrations are delightful, and once or twice you have to turn the book sideways because the text and illustration demand it, so that’s always a plus.
There you have it: this year’s five picture books for the holidays. I hope you find time to check them out. I’ll happily read them, I mean loan them, to you if you like.
Merry merry, everyone.

Wisdom Poetry and the Modern Mind

Y’all, I’m still on about memory. The upshot of Maryanne Wolf’s book on reading in a digital world is that the brain’s structure reflects what it does. That is, if we give it nothing but flashing ephemera, it will rewire itself to handle that well, and not to handle deep, prolonged thought. This is a problem for the future of the academy, but more importantly for the future of democracy, which depends upon the people thinking well.

Have I got your attention? Good. I want to talk about vikings.
Odin is a god of war and wisdom. What I liked most about the Marvel movie Thor: Ragnarok was the scene where Hela (who is NOT Odin’s daughter in the myths, but Loki’s) breaks the ceiling and reveals the inglorious past. Odin is a war god. We sometimes forget that.
How do war and wisdom go together? Well, you can buy the Marvel reading and say after the war comes the wisdom; that works. But in the myths, Odin is a war god throughout. He fights a war against the Vanir—the fertility gods—until it’s clear no one will win, really. (Imagine how much we would save if we had that wisdom.) He visits battlefields, blessing warriors with strength and strategy, and he collects soldiers in Valhalla against the coming of Ragnarok. He is the patron of kings, part of whose job description is knowing when and how to wage war.
But he’s also the god of wisdom. The other part of the king’s job is knowing when not to fight–knowing how to support, sustain, and provide for your people. And it means knowing what it takes to ensure a civilization endures.
Old Norse myths include rollicking stories of adventure, but they’re also full of wisdom poetry. I have a whole day in my myth class devoted to wisdom texts.

These wisdom poems serve lots of functions besides painting beautiful mental images of Norse culture. They are designed to be memorized and performed, and they preserve cultural knowledge like fairy tales and other oral texts do.

They almost always feature Odin. Odin hangs himself on Yggdrasil (“The World Tree,” or more literally, “Odin’s Steed’) to learn the runes. He journeys to Jǫtunheim to challenge the giant Vafthrudnir (“Riddle-Weaver”) to a contest of knowledge. He journeys to the underworld to talk to dead witches and learn from them, and he tests others, including his own son, Thor, while in disguise. Odin never stops wanting to learn more and test how much he knows.
He shares his knowledge with kings, in an effort to improve the world. He’s a believer in trickle-down wisdom. When a king he’s trained doesn’t work out, he tests him first and then instructs and installs his replacement.  We know all this because there are numerous poems narrating his exploits and filled with stanza after stanza of truths Icelanders did not want to lose.  These texts read like the biblical Proverbs or the Welsh Triads, with small, pithy messages in series.
So they memorized Odin’s words and preserved them. In later periods they wrote them down. Snorri Sturluson, in the 13th century, tried to summarize and capture them in sort of Reader’s Digest Condensed versions, and he did so with academic interest and cultural pride. The result is that we have a good number of texts that don’t fit the adventure narrative or the divine intervention myth. In lots of them, Odin just talks.
The most famous of these is the Hávamál, or “The Sayings of the High One (Odin).” It is a long, aphoristic list of guidelines for how to behave and live well, followed by a diagogue with a king, and ending with an account of Odin’s acquisition of the runes. Its wisdom is no less pertinent today than it was in the Middle Ages.
That’s the real reason we need to remember—because we’ve learned a lot of this stuff before, and if we don’t waste time relearning, we can go farther faster.
(The Old Norse poems I refer to in these last paragraphs are the stories of Odin meeting Vafthrudnir, the Vǫlva, Thor, and the king Geirrod, and I’m happy to suggest translations if you’re interested.)