A Reykjavík bookseller on why Iceland is the number one Christmas destination for book lovers

Books and Christmas go hand in hand for Icelanders. A country famous for its love of books and storytelling, Iceland has a uniquely rich literary heritage. Svanborg Þórdís Sigurðardóttir, a bookseller at Reykjavík’s famous Penninn Eymundsson bookshop, tells us what it’s like to work as a bookseller in Iceland at Christmas.

Reykjavik cityscape by Tabea Damm

The annual Icelandic Christmas ‘book flood’ starts in late autumn and reaches its height on the day before Christmas. This custom dates back to World War 2 when restrictions on imports made books the most popular gift for Christmas. Paper was not rationed, whereas some other materials were. The market was small, and publishers didn’t think they could sell books all year round. Traditionally, new books are published in the weeks before Christmas, flooding the bookstores. Hence the beautiful Icelandic word ‘bókaflóð‘,which translates simply as ‘bookflood‘.

Photo © Snorri Bros, taken from the book Barflies: Reykjavik II out now
Photo of Svanborg © Snorri Bros, taken from the book Barflies: Reykjavik II

In a country where almost everybody seems to have ‘að ganga með bók í maganum’, which translates as ‘a book in their stomach’, meaning they want to write a book one day, the importance of books in Icelandic culture is almost tangible. We call ourselves a ‘bókaþjóð’, a ‘book nation’, and are very proud of our heritage, the Icelandic language and the Icelandic Sagas which date back to the ninth century and have heavily influenced a huge number of authors, including J. R. R. Tolkien. We have a Nobel Prize-winner, Halldór Laxness, and recently the winner of the Nordic Council Literary Prize was announced, who this year is the Icelandic author Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir the eighth Icelander to win this prestigious prize. We are also proud of our many authors who have been translated into numerous languages and published around the world. 

Recently, we have seen more and more books published year round, but Christmas is still the most important season for books. Annually, around 800 books are published in Iceland – in a nation of just 340,000 people. 60% of Icelanders get one book for Christmas, and 70% of Icelanders give books for Christmas. That’s a lot of books! In November, The Icelandic Publisher's Association sends every household a free magazine called Bókatíðindi, or in English, The Tidings of Books. This amazing magazine contains almost all books published in Iceland over the year and is used by booksellers and book buyers alike. Until the magazine arrives, little is known about what books will be out for Christmas, but readers can be sure of one thing, and that is that the crime writers Arnaldur Indriðason, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir and Ragnar Jonasson will have a new book every year and these books are eagerly awaited by their thousands of fans.

Bokatidini - Tidings of Books - magazine cover 2018

On the day before Christmas, all Penninn Eymundsson bookshops open until 11 pm. After all the hard work over the last few weeks with countless publishing parties in the shops, unboxing of all the hundreds of new books and finding the best space available for each and every one of them, this is the most exciting day to be working in a bookshop in Iceland. On this special day there is a mixture of excitement and festivities in the air. Booksellers dress up, ready for the busiest day of the year. Some people even buy themselves a new book for Christmas in case they don’t get the one they dream of! We get an unusually large number of customers on this day, who line up by the cashier and the gift wrapping table; we also meet a lot of friends and acquaintances in the shop who not only want to chat, but, like other customers, also want you to recommend a book to gift. This is one of the most fun parts of the day; everybody is looking forward to Christmas (but a bit stressed!) about finding the right book. And we are there, happy to help them.

With all the beautifully wrapped gifts – many of them books – ready and waiting under the Christmas tree, we enjoy the festive dinner on the evening of the 24th of December which is the main celebration, and after dessert, open our presents. With our new book in hand, we crawl into bed and read through Christmas night. The 25th is reserved for family and we get up late in the morning after a long night of reading. Later, we have our Christmas parties and we talk about what we have read and what we would like to read, what we liked and what book we are going to get instead of the one we got two copies of.

At the time of writing this article, the big books for Christmas are on their way to us from the printers and I eagerly await them. There are many coming from authors that I trust will write good – and hopefully great – books, that I’m sure I’ll be hand-selling. For example, Hallgrímur Helgason's Sixty Kilos of Sunshine and Ófeigur Sigurðsson's Hekla's Canon. When it comes to foreign books, I highly recommend Rachel Kushner's The Mars Room, Ali Smith's Winter and Donna Tartt's Goldfinch. I'm sure I'll be able to find something special for everybody. Gleðileg bókajól, merry ‘bookchristmas’!


By Svanborg Þórdís Sigurðardóttir    

Product manager for foreign books, Penninn Eymundsson, Iceland

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