June 3, 2013

Iceland: books and Björks


Eymundsson’s Bookstore in Reykjavik.

New figures about Iceland’s publishing and reading habits came out recently that show how Icelanders rack up intellectually against their regional neighbors.  A study from Bifröst University, reported on by Alda Kravec in the Reykjavik Grapevine, reveals that 50% of Icelanders read more than eight books a year and 93% read more than one book a year.

They also publish more: the study asserts that, proportionally, Iceland publishes three times the number of books Sweden and Norway do annually, and double the number from Denmark or Finland. And they published more books last year than ever before. One wonders if this isn’t a little Nordic one-upsmanship after a bruising couple of years for Iceland, but on the other hand, given a choice between a country with a lot of books and relatively little money, and a country with a lot of money and nothing but copies of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, I know which way I’d go.

The book industry was affected by the financial collapse—sales dropped by half in 2008—but the country has a sturdy literary culture that has persisted, perhaps based on the role of books as gifts. The Icelandic publishing schedule works a little differently from ours: most fiction is published in October and November in time for the holiday season, a period called Jolabokaflod, or “Christmas Book Flood.” It all kicks off in with the delivery of a catalog of all the upcoming publications to the home of every Icelander for free, at which point I imagine the entire nation gets out their pencils and starts ticking. Books are a traditional Christmas gift and, in an interview for NPR last year, Kristian B. Jonasson, president of the Iceland Publishers Association, said thatNormally, we give the presents on the night of the 24th and people spend the night reading. In many ways, it’s the backbone of the publishing sector here in Iceland.”

But Icelandic publishing is facing some longer-term shifts as well, as described by Baldur Bjarnason in an article for the Bookseller: the arrival of paperbacks as a regular format (Iceland has been largely a land of hardcovers, which means it’s developing paperback and e-book markets at roughly the same time—an interesting way to keep the whole “oh my god, are e-books going to change EVERYTHING?” discussion we have here in the States in perspective) and probable reductions in government support for the industry. Bjarnason also notes that the popularity of Scandinavian crime in other countries has meant that some Icelandic authors can now expect to make a substantial part of their income, which hadn’t been the case previously—everybody had other jobs.

One of the authors who may be benefiting from this is Sjón, novelist, poet and lyricist for a number of Björk’s songs. Three of his novels, The Blue Fox, The Whispering Muse, and From the Mouth of the Whale, were published simultaneously this spring by FSG. Sjón wrote the lyrics for Björk’s “Bachelorette” and Michel Gondry directed the music video, in which the character played by Björk finds a book in the forest, a book that writes itself, and when she brings it to the city, it’s becomes huge publishing success. Whether books are actually being dug up from the  ground in Iceland is up for debate, but the industry seems to be flourishing, just like those creepy trees everyone turns into at the end of the video.


Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.