As millions around the world stretch their bellies over the coming weeks, people in Iceland will be expanding their minds with new books.
‘Tis the season for jólabókaflóð: the traditional “Christmas book flood,” when Icelanders give each other books for the holidays.
In Iceland, publishers release the majority of new books in the latter half of the year, and sales skyrocket in early winter months. To jumpstart the jólabókaflóð, the Icelandic Publishers Association distributes a free catalog of new published titles to households across the country in November. “It’s like the firing of the guns at the opening of the race,” book industry researcher Baldur Bjarnason told NPR in 2012.
“This tradition can be traced back to when the variety of goods available in Iceland was very limited and therefore opting for a book as a Christmas present was a good bet,” says Bryndis Loftsdóttir, vice director of the Icelandic Publishing Association, to publishing site 2 Seas Agency.
Iceland is known to publishers as a small but mighty nation of book-lovers with a rich literary history. The country of less than half a million was home to Nobel Prize-winner Halldór Laxness, author of the epic Independent People, about stoicism and sheep.
“In Iceland, we’re very focused on cultural matters,” Ágúst Einarsson, an economist at Bifröst University and author of Hagræn áhrif ritlistar, or The Economic Impact of Writing (2014), tells Quartz. “Reading books for pleasure is very popular; we don’t have so many outdoor activities.”
According to Einarsson, 82% of Icelanders read at least one book for pleasure in 2011—compared to Eurostat’s latest survey (PDF) on European cultural consumption, which puts that number at about 84% in Sweden and only 48% in Italy. In 2011, Pew estimates around 72% of Americans over 16 read at least one book.