Welcome to Book Island

February 1, 2018

Where are books loved more than anywhere else on Earth? It just might be the tiny Scandinavian nation of Iceland.

In the U.S., the biggest gifts tend to change each Christmas. There’s often a “hot ticket” item that adults want, or a fad toy that every kid asks for; for example, this year millions of adults are getting an Instant Pot, and building up to Christmas in 1996, there were near-riots as parents tried to secure their children a Tickle-Me-Elmo doll, respectively. In Iceland, however, the most popular holiday gift since World War II has been books — any kinds and all kinds of books. In fact, it’s a national tradition for Icelanders to gift each other books — they’re exchanged on Christmas Eve, and then people stay up late reading their new books.

The History

Icelandic historians believe that the Christmas book tradition began during World War II. Import restrictions limited gift and luxury items coming into the country, but imported paper wasn’t much regulated at all. That meant more books could be printed, and so people started buying each other more and more books during the holiday season.

Holiday Gifts

Because books are such a popular Christmas gift, Icelandic book stores are inundated with new books in the lead-up to the holidays. The majority of books in Iceland are sold between late September and November, and the frenzy is nicknamed Jolabokaflod, or “The Christmas Book Flood.” The official beginning of the Christmas Book Flood comes with the mailing of the Bokatidini. The Iceland Publishers Association lists every new book available in this catalog and then sends it to every home in the country, free of charge.

Book Publishing Per Capita

Thanks in large part to the love of reading and the subsequent book flood to feed that desire, Iceland publishes more books per capita than any other nation on Earth. Five books per 1,000 Icelanders are made available each year. Still, because Iceland is such a small country, volume-wise it’s not a huge market for books — just an enthusiastic one. There are only about 320,000 people in the whole country, and two-thirds of them live in the Icelandic capital of Reykjavik. Sill, the city library loans out more than 1.3 million books a year. Statistics show that nearly every Icelandic adult buys at least one book a year.

Books as a Physical Object

This love of books as a physical object determines what kinds of books are sold. Up until the early 2000s, paperback books couldn’t compete with hardbound books — that suggested Icelanders wanted to keep and hold on to their books for as long as possible. Also, e-books haven’t caught on there at all — mainly because they can’t be gifted as easily as a physical book.
Iceland is also the only market in the world for Icelandic books. There’s such a demand for books in that language that self-published books routinely make the bestseller list there.
Books really do make a great gift. Check out the Portable Press books.