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MY ICELAND: the Christmas books

Every year in November, Iceland experiences what is known as jólabókaflóðið, or “the Christmas book flood”. It’s when publishers flood the market with new or [occasionally] re-released books, in time for Christmas. This is because one of the most long-standing Yule traditions in this country is to give the gift of books for Christmas – new Icelandic books, in particular.

The Christmas book flood is a big deal up here. Book reviews are all over in the media during the weeks leading up to Christmas – in newspapers, on radio and TV – and some of the new publications are announced on the RÚV 12 o’clock news hour. The buzz is all about which books are good and which are not, which will sell well this year and which won’t, and conversations revolve around which books people would like to receive for Christmas.

And once the holidays arrive, Nicelanders will typically describe the pinnacle of enjoyment as lying in bed eating konfekt [filled chocolates] and reading one of the books they received under the tree. Later, at the slew of Christmas parties that inevitably follow, the Christmas books will be a prominent topic of conversation, and post-Yule the newspapers are filled with evaluations of which books had the best and worst titles, best and worst covers, etc.

Iceland [as many of you will know] is the country that sells the greatest number of books per capita – and most of them are sold in the weeks leading up to Christmas.The book catalogue Bókatíðindi, which is published each November and lists every published book during this Christmas season, included 760 titles this year. Sales of new Icelandic novels were exceptionally good this season, with over 100,000 titles sold, meaning that each household in the country received at least one new Icelandic novel. Evidently the Áfram Ísland campaign is delivering results, since sales of Icelandic books over foreign ones were particularly high this year [in fact, Icelandic merchants report an increase in sales of Icelandic products across the board – they were definately the gifts of choice this Christmas].

Normally I put an English-language book on my Christmas wish list, but this year I asked for an Icelandic novel – Skaparinn [The Creator] by Guðrún Eva Mínervudóttir – and got it! It’s about a man who works in a factory that makes full-sized silicon dolls … I haven’t started reading it yet [I’m on the home stretch reading Zadie Smith’s On Beauty] so I can’t tell you much more than that, but it has got rave reviews. For EPI I got a book called Brevis Commentarius de Islandia, a collection of writings from the latter part of the 16th century, written by a man called Arngrímur Jónsson hinn lærði [“the learned”]  to correct various misconceptions that foreigners had about Iceland at that time. EPI went out to buy it for his father for Christmas and became totally engrossed in the display copy they had at the bookstore … so of course there was no question what book he’d get under the tree. AAH, meanwhile, got What is the What by Dave Eggers in Icelandic translation – although she plans to exchange it for the English-language version.

And what about you? Do you read much at this time of year? Did you get any books for Christmas? Were there any on your Christmas wish list?

As forecast, all our snow was gone on Christmas Eve, and has been more or less absent since. The last two days have been particularly mild, with temps up near the 10°C mark. Blustery and quite refreshing, actually. Right now it’s 7°C [45F] and damp, with a bit of a breeze. Sunrise was at 11.22 and sunset will arrive at 3.37 pm.

[This post is filed under the MY ICELAND category.]



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  • Marc December 28, 2008, 1:00 pm

    Yes, I had one book on my list. And received another (a poetry/photobook) instead. It is lovely.

    On the Afram Island topic: your country’s sizeable trade deficit has been reversed since october, with imports falling off a cliff. This was no doubt helped by the reduction in oil prices on the markets, but still, it offers a glimmer of hope in these cold times. No reason to think you’re out of the woods yet, as a trade deficit/surplus can persist for a very long time before reality catches up with it. Three months is a very short period.

  • maggie December 28, 2008, 1:34 pm

    What a lovely tradition. Here it seems to be what new electronic gadget is under the tree (it was a Nintendo DS for the Monkey…). The Monkey also received a collection of simple chapter books from my aunt. We snuggle every night and read a chapter before bed.

  • namme December 28, 2008, 2:23 pm

    I gave two books for Christmas, and a few other members of my family did as well, I also asked for a few books (translated to German) but sadly didn’t get any :(.

  • Kathryn December 28, 2008, 2:24 pm

    Hi Alda,

    I really enjoyed reading about the ‘Christmas book flood’ ! I received
    ‘A Fraction of the Whole’ by Steve Toltz. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize this year, so I am looking forward to seeing what its like.
    Also ‘Love in the time of Cholera’. So many books, so little time…

  • Schneelocke December 28, 2008, 3:55 pm

    Oh, cool, Guðrún Eva Mínervudóttir. 🙂 I read a few excerpts from “Albúm” earlier this year, but when I wanted to buy (that is, order) the book, I found that much to my chagrin, it was already out of print in Iceland. (…you wouldn’t know of a way to get out-of-print Icelandic books, BTW, would you? There’s a few I still want to get; aside from the aforementioned “Albúm”, I’d also like copies of Gyrðir Elíasson’s “Gula Húsið” and Sjóns “Stálnótt”, but I don’t know where I could get them from.)

    Dave Eggers is also an author I like; I never knew his works were being translated into Icelandic, though. Cool!

    Myself, I got three books for christmas, BTW – Peter Barham’s “The Science of Cooking”, Philip Matyszak’s “Ancient Rome on Five Denarii a Day” and Bill Bryson’s autobiography, “The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid”. Well, actually, it was the German editions I got. 😉

    I actually had a couple more on my wishlist, too, including an Icelandic one – Sjón’s “Skugga-Baldur” (in German, again) -, as well as a few by Terry Pratchett and J.R.R. Tolkien, another cookbook, and a computer book. But my sister also gave me a gift certificate for a local bookstore, so I’ll still get one or two of those at least. 😉

  • Lissa December 28, 2008, 6:03 pm

    In my family, books were the canonical Christmas gift.

    I’m going to have to look for Brevis Commentarius de Islandia. Sounds fascinating.

    We won’t celebrate until the end of next month, but I do have books and DVDs I picked up in Reykjavik for some of my friends.

  • hildigunnur December 28, 2008, 6:27 pm

    We got one book, Súkkulaðiást (Love for Chocolate) but the kids were luckier, got tons. I’ve already read two of theirs, Rán and Steindýrin…

  • KV December 28, 2008, 6:34 pm


    In paper:

    The Folger ‘Dowland’ Manuscript – Facsimile edition

    The Ascent of Money – Niall Ferguson

    Private Lives In Renaissance Venice: ART, ARCHITECTURE AND THE FAMILY – Patricia Brown


    A subscription to audible.com

    Happy Holidays from Venice,

  • Ljósmynd DE December 28, 2008, 7:19 pm

    As the Reykjavik bookshops are flooded with books in Icelandic language during the pre-christmas period, any other items seem to disappear at this time. Trekking maps, translated travel guides, photobooks and other translated icelandic books – omnipresent in summer – are banished from display into some dusty corner of the shops or just not available at all. They seem to cater only for the domestic market at this time. I had to resort to the airport book shop to buy at least some of the books intended as christmas presents. Instead, I brought home some konfekt with a beautiful picture of Icelandic landscape on the box, which was just as well. And I bought books on learning Icelandic. So, maybe some day I won’t need the translations at all;-)

    Meanwhile I got the German translation of ‘Sumarljós og svo kemur nóttin’ by Jón Kalman Stefánson as Christmas present.

  • Robert Hill December 28, 2008, 9:41 pm

    For my first Christmas as a Retiree, my astute daughter has given me
    “The Dangerous Book For Boys”. Guess I have leave for another childhood.
    For her household I found a large format Ansel Adams photo book, still a winner for enthusiasts, and have given book store gift certificates all around.
    Happy Holidays to all, Iceland and beyond.

  • alda December 29, 2008, 12:29 am

    Thanks, everyone. Very interesting!

    Schneelocke – I’m afraid I don’t know about out of print books, except perhaps in used bookstores here in Iceland. I don’t think they have websites, though.

    Lissa – that book is in Icelandic – can you read it?

    LDE – Yes, I suspect the book flood is not kind to tourists.

  • MAJA December 29, 2008, 4:35 am

    I got all the buffy the vampire slayer omnibus comic books. I love them.

  • Leighton December 29, 2008, 9:01 am


    What Icelandic books are being translated into english outside of Laxness?

  • alda December 29, 2008, 11:28 am

    Leighton – well, I can’t give you an exhaustive list, but pretty much all of Arnaldur Indriðason’s books, plus some by Einar Már Guðmundsson and others … there are always a handful of books each year that are translated for the foreign market and / or sold to foreign publishers.

  • Andrew December 29, 2008, 11:33 am

    Certainly beats watching the TV on Christmas Day! It’s remarkable really – a population of just 300,000, speaking a language nobody else speaks – with the highest level of book sales per person in the world!

  • Joey December 29, 2008, 12:38 pm

    Merry Christmas, Alda.

    Have you read the books of Arnaldur Indridason? What’s your opinion of them?

  • alda December 29, 2008, 12:50 pm

    Joey – I’ve read about 3/4 of one of them … wasn’t terribly impressed so I abandoned it. To be fair, though, crime novels are not my favourite genre.

    And Merry Christmas to you, too.

  • Tristan December 29, 2008, 12:58 pm

    I’m looking for Icelandic novels in English translations too. I enjoyed Silence Of The Grave by Indriðason but thought Voices wasn’t very good and the translation was pretty terrible. I tried Independent People but couldn’t finish it – sorry!

  • Jen December 29, 2008, 9:34 pm

    Hi Alda!

    Merry Crimbo. I got a book by Paul Hawken called Blessed Unrest. We saw him speak a couple of weeks ago í Þjóðmenningarhúsinu and he was very inspiring, so I am looking forward to reading it. I got my husband a book called What It Is by Lynda Barry, which has gotten some really great reviews for inspiring people to be creative, in writing or art or whatever they do. I was wondering where you bought Brevis Commentarius de Islandia, as it sounds very interesting and I was planning to give it as a late birthday present for someone. Thanks!

  • Crista December 29, 2008, 9:45 pm

    Let’s see…my husband got an Icelandic cookbook for himself (we’ll try a recipe or two for New Year’s Day), I got him a phenomenal book called “Birdscapes”, which is basically a pop-up book with sound for adults, and our littlest girl got a whole bunch of picture books, including the ever-popular Fancy Nancy. Has Fancy Nancy made it to Iceland yet? The books are a riot.

    And although it isn’t actually books, I got Icelandic language CDs! I’m excited, but I know I’ll never be able to speak it without my flat Midwestern accent…

  • Grif December 29, 2008, 10:59 pm

    I got some money … always goes to buying music CDs (Emiliana Torrini’s latest CD was sold out… rats :/ ) and a crate of some good red wine.
    Enjoying them both at the moment 🙂

    With the left over money I plan to buy a Icelandic children story book … got to practice my (currently still bad) Icelandic knowledge

    cheers 😀

  • alda December 29, 2008, 11:32 pm

    Thanks for sharing, all! 🙂

    Jen – I bought that book at Eymundsson … well, actually my daughter’s boyfriend went on the errand for me on Christmas Eve Day and had to fight the hordes for the last copy (or so he says). But I’m sure they’ll have more in stock elsewhere.

  • Mary from California December 30, 2008, 3:12 am

    My husband gave me The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide by Terence Dickinson and Alan Dyer. I am afraid it will tempt me to spend money on a telescope, but it is a lovely book. Actually, the one time I was in Iceland was on an astro tour for the purpose of seeing the Northern Lights.

    Happy new year! I enjoy your blog so much!

  • Leighton December 30, 2008, 8:40 am


    I’ll have to hunt around in the bookstores here for those and see if any catch my eye. Outside the sagas, Laxness is the only Icelandic author I’ve read (knowingly). The first I picked up at the big wool mill/shop at Mosfellbaer (?the Álafoss factory) – tells you something about the Icelandic love of literature if you can pick novels up in a craft shop! But I believe Laxness grew up around there.

    Picking up on Mary from California’s book present, when is the best time (and place) to see the Northern Lights in Iceland?

    Best Regards and hope you have a Prosperous New Year,


  • alda December 30, 2008, 11:05 am

    Leighton – if you’re in the UK, then Arnaldur Indriðason’s books should be widely available. They’re very popular.

    As for the Northern Lights, the best time I’d say is October-December. January-February also, but it seems to me that I see them far more often in the autumn. In the other months it tends to be too light or not cold enough for them to appear.

  • Elín December 31, 2008, 1:32 am

    Well, I guess I am going to be the first Icelandophile to admit that The Great Weaver from Kashmir (Laxness) was at the very top of my Christmas wish list. I received that and Michael Pollan´s In Defense of Food, a must-read for anyone working in the food industry or those concerned about the detrimental effects of agricultural policies in the U.S. I also received a lovely package from Iceland, containing Saga Búnaðarsambands Suðurlands 1908-2008 by Páll Lýdsson, published posthumously, and a booklet entitled Sveitarfélagið Árborg, Afmælisrit 1998-2008 both as this is where my “people” come from. I agree, so many books, so little time. I really need to turn off the t.v.