Our Reading Lives

Living in a Land of Books

Johann Thorsson

Staff Writer

Johann Thorsson is a native of Iceland, but spends much of his time in Bookland. He has lived in a few parts of the world but currently lives in Iceland with a pretty woman and a mischievous son who resembles Calvin (of Calvin and Hobbes fame) more each day. He has a complicated but ultimately useless degree in bioinformatics from a very pretty college in England. His favorite books are 1984, Flowers for Algernon and The English Patient. He hopes one day to call himself a writer without feeling like he's just fooling himself. Blog: Johann Thorsson - On Book and Writing Twitter: @johannthors

My native Iceland was in the news this week, and this time it was in a good way. It seems that more people read and write books here than anywhere else in the world. Per-capita, of course.

You see, there’s only about 300,000 of us, so everything we do has to be measured per-capita for it to have any meaning. Though I will say that even without counting per-capita, we are doing pretty well in the Literature Nobel Prize section.

Dinner table discussion with friends and family often revolves around books. Almost every home has a small library of books, often displayed prominently. A great deal of books are published in Icelandic every year, and the most popular books from the US, the UK, and Scandinavia are translated, ensuring a never-ending supply of great literature.

Maybe it has something to do with the Sagas. These are the written history of the settlement of Iceland, very probably somewhat exaggerated accounts of early Icelanders, their lives and disputes. We are forced to read them in school, but then it dawns on you that these are mostly about manly men hacking each other with swords, drinking, and avenging their fallen family members. Pretty good stuff.

In addition, Halldor Laxness won the Nobel back in 1955, and his books are, of course, required reading. Lucky for us, they are funny, well written, and tend to reflect a part of the soul of the nation (I recommend Independent People).

There is also a respect with which we speak about our artists, writers, poets, and playwrights in particular, that makes them seem like professions one could aspire to without being deemed a dreamer. The government has a special fund that aspiring writers can apply to and get a salary for working on their art (usually doled out in increments of 3, 6, or 12 months). It’s not a lot of money, but enough to get by as you create your masterpiece.

The Christmas “book flood” spoken of in the BBC article is a real thing. Many, if not most, writers aim for a publication date of late November, so that their books will appear in stores just as Christmas is rolling around, and the bookstores are filled to bursting with fresh hardbound delicacies. Books are to be found wrapped up snug under most Christmas trees in Iceland and many of us feel that Christmas just isn’t Christmas if you don’t get at least one book.

Iceland sits at the same latitude as Alaska, and is dark for about 22 hours during winter. But that’s ok. We have books.


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