On Christmas Eve, the majority of people are rushing to get presents wrapped or snuggling up to watch a Christmas film. However, that’s not a normal Christmas Eve in Iceland. Since 1944, when the 2nd World War was still threatening society, the country started their Christmas celebration by snuggling together and reading a book. Many luxuries had been rationed due to expense and lack of workers, but books were luckily still available. The tradition is commonly known as Jolabokaflod, which translates to Christmas book flood. It has formed Iceland’s reading culture over the decades and gifted them a love for the hobby.
Every November, during the Reykjavik book fair, a book bulletin which they call the bokatidindi is sent out to the Icelandic community to buy new books for the Christmas season. This is responsible for most of their book purchases for the entire year. In 2013, a study done at Bifrost University found that 50 percent of Icelanders read more than eight books a year and 93 percent read at least one a year. That is double the amount of readers than in the UK.
The president of the Icelandic Publishing Association says, “In many ways, it’s the backbone of the publishing sector here in Iceland.”
Why does it work so well and what are the draw backs?
Different to bookstores in the UK, Iceland’s bookstores are staffed by experts with either a BA in comparative literature or Icelandic, or a retail veteran with an encyclopaedic amount of knowledge on the subject.
Most books published are hardbacks as they feel nicer to hold and looked more appealing. However, many of the books sold now, while still hardback, don’t concentrate on the covers of the books as much as other countries do. Especially the US and the UK, who rely almost entirely on the cover selling the book as well as the reviews and the blurb.
This may be because books are so heavily promoted and easily distributed due to the small population in Iceland: 329,000. This is also a reason why many of the books are not published again after initial release, as well as expense. Ruling out a few classics like Saga of the Icelanders and The Poetic Edda. This also means the authors don’t get much money for the books and almost all of the profit goes towards the publishers.
Overall, the book culture in Iceland is thriving thanks to this tradition encouraging younger generations to read by connecting it to the festive period.