Daily Archives: December 8, 2017

Jólabókaflóð: The Icelandic Holiday tradition That You’ll Want in Your Life

Beowulf from “A book of myths” (1915)

By Lon Maxwell, Reference Department

Jólabókaflóð, or if you prefer your text free of diacritical marks and disused letters, Jolabokaflod, is a tradition that could only come out of Iceland. Literally it translates to Yule Book Flood.  Icelanders read an average of eight books a year, while Americans end up at about four. They also publish about one title for every two hundred people and there is an average of 775 titles released every Christmas season.  This onslaught of reading material is the flood but it’s only part of the tradition.

The actual beginning of this Christmas ritual doesn’t go back very far, though the Icelandic love of books goes back over a thousand years.  Icelanders have always been lovers of stories and tales, especially on the long winter’s long nights. The Skalds, wandering or court poem singers, were held in some renown and acted as the author/rock stars of their day. It was not uncommon for a Skald to be taken with the plunder of war. They filled the great halls of Viking leaders with songs and tales as, sometimes, nightly entertainment from Russia to Greenland. The famous Eddas (two Medieval Icelandic literary works) also carried poetic myths down through the ages and were memorized and recited by scholar after scholar until recorded by a man named Snorri Sturluson[1] to both preserve and enhance their accessibility. Finally the sagas journeyed from land to land taking tales of Thor and Loki (not just Marvel characters) and Beowulf and even Leif Erikson to the people of Scandinavia.

The modern half of the tradition owes its genesis to the independence of Iceland from Denmark in 1944. Because of the Second World War, many things were rationed. This made giving presents at Christmas hard, unless of course, you took advantage of the long standing love of tales and gave books for Christmas. You see, one thing that was not rationed was paper. The Icelandic people and their publishing houses loved the idea. Beginning in the Forties and running down through today, people have been waiting impatiently for their copy of the Bókatíðindi, the magazine/catalog that comes every fall. This magazine is put together by all the publishing houses in cooperation to showcase all the new titles for that year. This is the Sears and Roebuck Christmas book of Iceland. The difference is that the publishers print, package and ship these catalogs to every household in the Nation…for free. The revenue generated more than outweighs the expense. All of the media, print broadcast and online, have book reviews and publication announcements. It is the event of the year.

So what exactly makes this a Christmas tradition? Everybody gives books at Christmas. Everyone. All of Iceland has their Christmas Eve meal, exchanges gifts and then sits around as a family and reads their new books for the remainder of the day while eating konfect, filled chocolates, and sipping hot chocolate or jólabland, a sweet nonalcoholic malt beverage that is a Christmas favorite. The parties that occur after Christmas will have a lot of book discussions. Newspapers will be covering the best and worst of the books, from writing and plots to covers and titles.

We could all benefit from this, but I certainly don’t endorse replacing all your holiday gifts with books. The great thing about borrowed traditions is that you can adapt them to fit your life. I first ran across this tradition on Christmas Eve two years ago. This was a little short notice for 2015 so I decided that I would try it with my family in 2016. Last year we all drew lots in November and picked a book for the person we drew and everybody go to open their book on Christmas Eve. We then spent the remainder of the evening quietly reading. It was a great way to quiet down kiddos, hyped up on Christmas cookies and the pending visit from Santa. It also solved the “Can’t we have just one present tonight?” problem that parents have faced for years. It’s also a great way to foster a love of reading in your whole family.

We are a nation made of other nations and their traditions. We have German Christmas trees, English carols and eggnog, Spanish luminarias and Irish mistletoe. We are not afraid to adapt great traditions from our ancestors, or even our neighbor’s ancestors. Jólabókaflóð is making its way into American holiday plans. You can find everything from recipes to try and hints at adapting the book flood to fit your holidays to Icelandic chocolates and Jólabókaflóð pyjamas.  So maybe this year while you’re out doing the dreaded holiday shopping, pick up some books for your family and friends and borrow a tradition from our Icelandic friends and have a nice reading time on Christmas Eve.


Sources:

[1] Nancy Marie Brown and many other scholars believe that much of the inspiration for modern favorites The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and their literary descendants come from the tales of the Vikings.
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Classic Southern Fiction Writers

by Chelsea Bennett, Reference Department

Nashville is changing. It’s changing A LOT. And so is our little town of Franklin, one of Nashville’s major suburbs. Since 1980, Franklin’s population has increased more than 500%, which you’ll have no trouble believing if you want to go anywhere during morning rush hour – or lunch hour – or evening rush hour – or a Saturday – you get the gist. Whereas we used to be the “#1 small town in Tennessee,” we are now ranked as the 7th largest city in the state!

While Franklin has maintained its classic southern charm, we’ve also welcomed a healthy number of transplants from all over the USA, and from other countries, as well. With that in mind, I thought it would be fun to talk about classic Southern Fiction writers. These writers have played an important role in capturing, communicating, and preserving some of the cultural aspects of the South, from the hills of Appalachia to the bayous of Louisiana, and the states in between.

Whether you’re new to the southern states, or you’re a native southerner who wants to get more familiar with a writer who shares your family culture, I hope you’ll find an interesting, new-to-you author by the end of this post.

 (As with any society, the South is responsible for both positive and negative contributions to culture. Some of these authors may use racially insensitive language, or potentially upsetting plot points, but I won’t address specifics in this post. If you prefer to avoid literature of this nature, I encourage you to further research these authors and books before you start reading.)

Mark TwainThe Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876); Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885).
“All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn,” wrote Ernest Hemingway in a 1935 essay. William Faulkner called Twain “the father of American literature,” and Twain’s obituary acknowledged him as “the greatest humorist [America] has produced.” Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn deal with boys growing up and adventuring along the Mississippi River in the antebellum South. Twain was known for his use of satire, and both of these books carry with them heavy doses of social criticism.

Kate Chopin – “Désirée’s Baby” (1893); “The Story of an Hour” (1894); The Awakening (1899)
Living in late 19th century Louisiana, Kate Chopin denied being a feminist or a suffragist. But she viewed the culture around her with a probing eye. With a knack for clear, compassionate observation, and the boldness to write honestly – even if some subjects were deemed controversial, even immoral, at the time – Chopin nonetheless helped pave the way for 20th century feminist authors. The Awakening, about a young woman who determines to discover her identity beyond “wife” and “mother” despite societal conventions, is a staple in English literature classes. She also published several important short stories.

William FaulknerThe Sound and the Fury (1929); Absalom, Absalom! (1936)
Mississippi native William Faulkner created the fictional Yoknapatawpha County, placed it in his home state, and set most of his short stories and novels there. This allowed him to explore a variety of social groups within the same locale. He is known for including passages of “stream of consciousness” writing his stories, where he eschews proper grammar and punctuation in an attempt to convey the state of a character’s mind. Faulkner’s novels can be considered allegories for southern history. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949.

Zora Neale HurstonTheir Eyes Were Watching God (1937)
In addition to her works of fiction, Zora Neale Hurston collected African-American folk tales, published anthropological studies on voodoo practices, and wrote plays, non-fiction, and poetry. Their Eyes Were Watching God is her most well-known novel. It explores themes of race, gender roles, and gender inequality. The heroine, Janie Crawford, comes to learn what it means to take ownership of her life, and what it means to be an independent woman in early 20th century Florida.

Carson McCullersThe Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940)
Of her craft, McCullers said, “Writing, for me, is a search for God.”  Born in Columbus, Georgia (225 miles from Nashville, as the crow flies), Carson McCullers was another author who keenly observed her culture, and translated with great empathy (and perhaps a touch of comedy) the pain and loneliness she saw. Her friend Tennessee Williams summed up “Carson’s major theme: the huge importance and nearly insoluble problems of human love.”

Eudora WeltyA Curtain of Green (1941), The Optimist’s Daughter (1972)
Welty is a much-loved, much-awarded author who lived most of her life in Mississippi. Also a documentary photographer during the Depression era, she often found inspiration in the subjects of her own photographs. A woman ironing clothes behind a post office became the subject of one of her finest short stories, “Why I Live at the P.O.” Some southern authors have a reputation for world-weary cynicism. Welty instead managed to address difficult subjects – race relations, poverty, aging, loss – with a tender, artistic, even optimistic, voice.

Robert Penn WarrenAll the King’s Men (1946).
Warren was born just over the Tennessee line in Guthrie, Kentucky. Another staple of English literature classes, All the King’s Men won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1947, and its 1949 film adaptation won an Oscar for Best Picture. For this dramatic story of a once-idealistic lawyer’s descent into brutality and corruption, Warren likely took inspiration from the real life of Huey Long, former governor of Louisiana and a US Senator, who was assassinated in 1935. The novel, known for its “dramatic tension[,]… fierce emotion, narrative pace[,] and poetic imagery,” offers important insight into one facet of southern politics in the 1930s.

Ralph EllisonInvisible Man (1952)
Born in Oklahoma, Ralph Waldo Ellison attended Tuskegee Institute (“the prestigious all-black university in Alabama founded by Booker T. Washington”) in the 1930s. He was something of a renaissance man, at various times delving into football, trumpet, classic literature, sculpture, and photography. But his most enduring works are his essays, and his classic novel, Invisible Man. In it, he explores issues affecting not only African-Americans, but society as a whole. As his narrator summarizes, “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?”

Harper LeeTo Kill a Mockingbird (1960)
I can’t say anything about To Kill a Mockingbird that hasn’t already been said. If you haven’t read it, make it first on your list.

To find even more southern authors worth your time, check out the members of the Fellowship of Southern Writers (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fellowship_of_Southern_Writers). Their charter members include several authors from this post. You will find modern, influential southern writers among them as well, including Wendell Berry, Kaye Gibbons, and Tony Earley, well worth exploring in addition to the classics listed above. Enjoy!

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