Reading

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.

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