Iceland has the best holiday tradition for bookworms

The pre-jólabókaflóð scene at Reykjavik’s Bókabúð Máls & menningar.
The pre-jólabókaflóð scene at Reykjavik’s Bókabúð Máls & menningar.
Image: Bókabúð Máls & menningar
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If your idea of a perfect holiday is exchanging presents with your loved ones, discovering that you have all gifted one another books, and then retiring immediately to separate corners to read those books in companionable silence, then you should consider celebrating Christmas in Iceland—or at least in Icelandic style.

The Nordic nation of some 350,000 people observes an annual holiday tradition known as jólabókaflóð, or the Christmas book flood. Even in a time of smartphones and dwindling book sales, books remain the country’s most popular Christmas gift. Many Icelanders get down to the business of reading their new titles as soon as they open them, typically on Christmas Eve, and pass the holiday season lost in new books.

To kick off holiday sales, the Iceland Publishers Association sends a free catalogue of new titles called the Bókatíðinda to every home in the country. Around two-thirds of the country’s new books are published in the run-up to Christmas, said Einar Baldvin Arason, manager of Reykjavik’s popular Mál og Menning bookstore.

“It’s not irregular to get five to 10 books under the Christmas tree,” Aronson said. “It is therefore kind of a tradition to relax after the pre-Christmas stress in bed with your books and just read a whole lot for a couple of days.”

For introverts and book lovers, jólabókaflóð sounds like a dream—a culturally sanctioned reason first to gift beloved books to friends and family, and then to ignore those friends and family and curl up with your new books (and perhaps a mug of something warm).

If you cannot make it to Reykjavik this Christmas, these Nordic-themed books to read (or give) may inspire the feeling of jólabókaflóð at home.

Burial Rites, 

Hannah Kent

Set in Iceland in 1829, this haunting debut novel is based on the true story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the country’s last woman to be executed by the state.

The Library of Ice

, Nancy Campbell

Scottish poet and artist Nancy Campbell spent seven years at artists’ residencies in Greenland and Iceland. Her most recent book uses art, science, poetry, and history to explore a fast-disappearing force of nature: ice.

Cold Earth

, Sarah Moss

A research team in Greenland loses contact with the outside world, just as it becomes apparent that something terrible is spreading across the globe. The novel’s author also wrote Names for the Sea, a compelling (and far less terrifying) memoir of her family’s move from the UK to Iceland.

The Little Book of the Icelanders

, Alda Sigmundsdottir

This funny collection of essays captures the cultural quirks that become apparent when a native daughter (or son) returns to a place after a long absence.

Independent People

, Halldór Laxness

Iceland’s most decorated author won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1955. His best-known work is this epic 1934 novelabout, as Quartz reporter Thu Huong-Ha elegantly put it, “stoicism and sheep.”

The Sagas of Icelanders

Iceland’s 9th– through 11th-century sagas are some of the world’s best-preserved examples of medieval storytelling. They’re also just good stories, full of family drama, human foibles, and Vikings.