This is an article I wrote a couple of years ago about World Book night, and obsession with books that Icelanders have. Contains scenes of vampires.
A few weeks ago, it was World Book Night. An annual event designed to promote the joys of reading a proper book, one with actual pages and everything. One million books were given away in one night by an army of volunteers.
World Book Night also distributes an impressive 620,000 books to hospitals, shelters, care homes and prisons throughout the year.
I really liked the idea from the outset. Firstly, I am a sucker for books and a visit to a bookshop, a really good one, can take hours out of my day.
Staff at Eymundson on Austurstræti in Reykjavík can confirm this. I think that there is a simple pleasure to holding and reading a book; one that e-publishing may ultimately struggle to recreate.
I also think it is commendable to give books to people that wouldn’t normally get the opportunity to read; the objective being to increase literacy rates.
The 620,000 books given to institutions can only be a good thing, right? But it’s the actual giving of the books from person to person that inspires me.
I was lucky enough to be given a copy of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Let The Right One In by a complete stranger at my local library.
“Would you like one of these?” she said, pushing the thick copy into my hands. “It’s about a 12-year-old vampire.”
It’s not the sort of book I would usually read, admittedly, but I was thrilled to receive a gift from this pleasant lady, who clearly was just as thrilled to be making people happy by giving out copies of her favorite book.
I went home, and gave the book a try. I’m halfway through and so far it’s fantastically dark.
I was sorry to see then, that World Book Night does not currently operate in Iceland. It’s a bit like the American Baseball ‘World Series’, in that the use of the word “world” has been somewhat overplayed.
But it got me thinking. Does Iceland really need World Book Night?
First off, the literacy rate is already extremely high. There is little room or necessity for maneuver here. Iceland is rightly proud of the high standard of education amongst the population. What more could a single 24 hours provide?
Secondly, Icelanders already love their books. If the often quoted ‘Iceland publishes more books per capita than any other country’ fact doesn’t prove this, then try standing in a book shop in downtown Reykjavík in December.
You will be lucky to stay on your feet in the stampede for books to give as Christmas gifts. Icelanders are already well aware of the pleasure of giving and receiving books.
There is something to be said about Iceland’s history of literature at this juncture. I’m not going to harp on about it but you may have heard about something called the sagas? And a certain Mr. Laxness?
The point I’m trying to make here is that Iceland has literature running through it like a strand of DNA.
Icelanders are—generally speaking—creative bunch and, do you know what? Writers are welcomed and celebrated in Iceland. One in ten Icelanders will publish something in their lifetime.
I feel much more comfortable discussing my own book with Icelandic friends than I do at home, where it’s viewed as something geeky, something dowdy, and something not to be proud of.
Finally, Icelandic fiction is bigger than ever. Authors such as Arnaldur Indriðason and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir have gotten their feet well and truly under the Nordic crime table and are reaping the benefits. Their books are selling out all over the world (as in the whole world, this time) and in myriad languages.
Hallgrímur Helgason is back on the scene (it’s been too long) with his first English language novel A Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning, and new authors such as Iceland Review’s very own Nanna Árnadóttir are making their very own steps into the literary world. Even if Zombie Iceland gave me nightmares for a week.
The simple fact is this: Icelanders love books. They love to read them, they love to write them and they love to give them as gifts.
I think it’s fair to say that every night is a book night in Iceland. And that’s fine with me. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a 12-year-old vampire to deal with.