O Come, All Ye Readers
Ah, the holidays. A time of gathering with friends and family for feasting and gift giving and more feasting (perhaps on a dish or two from recipes contributed by local chefs and artisans, elsewhere in this issue). As for the gift-giving part, I’d venture to guess that, for even the most biblio-fanatical of you out there, your most memorable holiday gift was likely not a book. (Full disclosure: this unabashed book nerd’s is a tie between a Barbie DreamHouse when I was 7 years old and a Nintendo system when I was 13.)
Imagine, though, if the holidays were a more bookish time of year. If family members exchanged books on Christmas Eve and then settled in to read them as the eve turned into night.
If you lived in Iceland, you wouldn’t need to imagine. I’m talking about Jolabokaflod, which, roughly translated, means “Christmas book flood.” That’s right: a flood of books. Intrigued?
It all started during World War II, when, in Iceland, there were import restrictions on just about everything except for paper. As a result, lots of folks started giving books as gifts at the holidays, a tradition that caught on and continues today.
Each fall, the “flood” kicks off in quaint, 20th-century fashion with a book catalog that is snail-mailed to every household in the country. Rather than going straight into the recycling bin, this catalog is the means through which a large number of holiday gifts are researched, contemplated, and eventually ordered.
Icelandic family members exchange books on Christmas Eve and then read into the night. I repeat: They read on Christmas Eve. Picture it: no contentious political discussions, no curse-laden, pre-dawn bicycle assembly, no “oops, we forgot to get batteries” disappointment. Just pure, bookish bliss … with perhaps some cocoa (spiked or not) and cookies and occasional discussion about particularly stirring or provocative, just-read passages.
OK, perhaps I’m romanticizing a bit. I’m sure many moody Icelandic teens tuck their phones between the pages and only pretend to read. And plenty of grandparents doze off after only a few sentences. And I don’t mean, of course, to suggest that we should dismiss our own traditions of pre-Santa excitement or caroling or other merry festivities.
In fact, one of the most unexpected and pleasant surprises of owning a bookstore has been witnessing first hand just how many Americans (or East Nashvillians, at least) do give books as gifts at the holidays. Naturally, the uptick in foot traffic this time of year can be found across all types of retail. But my heart seriously swells when people come into the shop, spend a good deal of time looking through the selections that I’ve handpicked, and then proceed to find something for every single person on their list. “One-stop shopping!” they proclaim, as I launch into a Tenenbaumesque imagining of their family full of bibliophiles.
It’s these customers who reinforce my belief that the shop is an appreciated addition to the community and that the sweat, tears, and uncertainty involved in running a brick-and-mortar shop in this digital age is all worth it. And you never know — a carefully chosen book that you give this season just might replace a cherished childhood toy as its recipient’s most memorable gift.
What say you, book lovers? What do you think of Jolabokaflod? How would your friends and family respond if you suggested exchanging books this Christmas, Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa? Swing by the shop — we’d love to hear your thoughts on this or any other bookish thing on your mind, and to wish you a warm, wonderful holiday season in person.
Joelle Herr worked as a book editor at various publishers across the country for nearly 20 years. In 2016, she opened The Bookshop in East Nashville. She is also the author of several books.