Notebook: Holiday Book Flood
by Ann Kjellberg, editor
In Iceland they have a holiday tradition called the Jólabókaflóð, or Christmas book flood. It dates from World War II, when many goods were rationed, but not paper. The Icelandic book trade began in 1944 to publish a catalogue of all new books every November, on the occasion of the annual Reykjavik Book Fair, and to send it to every household in Iceland (shades of our own cinder-block-sized Sears catalogue), and Icelanders became accustomed to ordering books for each other from the catalogue, unwrapping them on Christmas Eve, and settling down for an evening of reading and drinking hot chocolate. Perhaps not entirely as a result of this happy tradition, Icelanders are huge readers: according to a 2013 study, half of Icelandic people read more than eight books a year, and 93 percent of Icelanders read at least one book a year, making it a much more dispersed book economy than most countries, whose purchasing is concentrated among fewer readers. Iceland also publishes more books per capita than any other country in the world in spite of the limited reach of its language: five titles for every thousand Icelanders.
One alternative to the Book Flood that is less friendly to the book business but perhaps more in the holiday spirit is the parallel tradition of the holiday book exchange: the practice of getting together with your friends and, by varying mechanisms, swapping up your library. Alana Semuels, a journalist who has covered labor and supply chain issues, wrote earlier this month for Time magazine about the significant climate benefits of drawing on the re-use economy for holiday gifts. In our story last fall on Book Fairs we learned that many school book fairs include a book-swap element as a way of reducing the social pressure to spend money and embarrassment to those with less to spend. We wrote last summer of a family that opened a permanent book exchange, the Hidden Gems Literary Emporium, to make books and the bookstore experience available to those for whom it can feel out of reach. Perhaps thinking of books as something to assimilate and pass on rather than pile up offers a communitarian, act-centered way of thinking about reading sometimes missing from the acquisitive model dear to many of us.
Indeed what I love about the Icelandic model is that the tradition is not just about procuring the object but builds in the reading part. One speculates as to whether long dark winters might contribute to the vitality of such a tradition (and the presence of such a readerly population); being locked up alone has certainly sponsored a swell recently in both reading and book-buying across other climates. It’s nice perhaps to think that when you give a person a book you give them not just at thing but the time they spend immersed in it, an interval carried beyond the sad narrow confines in which we find ourselves, perhaps smuggling in some spiritual resources for facing those confines.
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Physical books have shown impressive durability in covid times: electronic reading of course had a surge especially as students wrestled with remote learning, and audiobooks’ steady march upward was only slightly impeded by the reduction in covid-era commuting (the advance of music streaming services like Spotify into audiobooks continues apace; podcast companies like Pushkin Enterprises have begun developing audio-native audiobooks; Amazon began promoting technology, long available in the serial podcast app Realm, allowing readers to toggle back and forth between audio and e-books; all the tech companies are working on developing AI narration). A Swedish study cited in Jane Friedman’s newsletter “Hot Sheet” found, though, that there may be losses in audio-reading. Among fiction bestsellers, “Print bestsellers are longer, syntactically more complex and varied, and seem to focus more on depiction. Best-streaming audiobooks, by contrast, are shorter, more straightforwardly written, and appear to highlight plot and dialogue.” Is there a limit to the complexity of ideas we can take in by ear? Hugh Eakin has questioned the lose evidentiary standards in play in the audio-only world as well.
E-books have in their own way struggled to surpass, or even equal, the simple technology of the book. Brad Stone’s book The Everything Store describes the enormous effort Amazon engineers made to approximate the reading experience as we know it. “We were pushing for the subconscious qualities that made it feel like you are reading a book,” engineer Tom Hobbs told Stone. “One of the primary conclusions from their research was that a good book disappears in the readers hands,” Stone continued. “Bezos later called this the top design objective. ‘Kindle also had to get out of the way and disappear so that you could enter the author’s world,’ he said.” Washington Post book reviewer Ron Charles described last week the strides taken by Barnes and Noble’s competing device, the GlowLight 4, to advance on the simple ancient prototype. E-reader technology (particularly removing backlighting) may have mitigated some of the harms of digital reading, but pandemic-era Zoom and screen fatigue are starting to make manifest some of the sneakier costs of being bound to a screen. Too much exposure to the blue light emitted by your devices, especially before bed, has been found to contribute to insomnia, interruptions in circadian rhythm, eye fatigue, possibly even anxiety and depression. Stanford recently reported that video-conferencing taxes our emotional health with the stimulus of too much apparent eye contact and exposure to own image. The New York Times cited screen fatigue along with dread, uncertainty, and loneliness in an article last week on our woes, “Across the World, Covid Anxiety and Depression Take Hold.” We’ve all learned that working from home is disintegrating our awareness of the boundaries separating the private self from the public manifestation.
Meanwhile technology is enuring us to ever-shorter experiences of attention. Twitter, counterintuitively the refuge of journalists and writers, offers almost an infinity of human interactions in vanishingly tiny increments of time. I am told now that its algorithm increasingly discourages links, endeavoring to hold you within its 280 characters. Products like Blinkist propose to boil the experience of reading a book down to the minimum, homeopathtic dose. The news service Axios has succeeded by delivering news as a series of bullet points. We know how toddlers get when they struggle between transitions. What kind of attrition to well-being might result from being constantly pinballed among nodules of information, as the very light waves bringing them our way incessantly remind us to wake up.
Historian Keith Thomas (whose pioneering book Religion and the Decline of Magic had a lot to say about how material changes in society reverberate in people’s inner lives) published an essay a while back in the London Review of Books about the now-unnecessary system of envelopes and paper fragments he used to use to collect his notes. His awkward if tender description invited readers to consider the possibility that the physical rituals of gathering information may cradle and inform the ways people assimilate it. If your own writing history predates the word processor you’ve probably wondered what your sentences might have lost when you were freed of the necessity of retyping them. One marvels now at the commitment of time that previous generations made to letter-writing, and what an education in expression and feeling being bent to communicate in this laborious way must have entailed.
The person who ordered a book in Iceland in 1944 to give to their friend was giving them an increment of time not that much different from the increment delivered by a different book anywhere in the world in 2021. It seems possible that thinking takes a certain irreducible amount of time. Perhaps it is rushed at its peril. Technologies improve, but what if they outpace the thinking they are created to serve? What if they leave no interlude in which to feel what our circumstances ask us to feel? In 2021 it seems we may give our friends a gift just by turning their faces away from the blue-wave emitting, artificially social experience of their screens for a few hours. I’m starting to sense, as 2021 draws to a close, as this screen vibrates before me with its attention-grabbing light, with its barrage of information, with its constantly proferred-yet-elusive mirage of company, this screen that has begun to haunt my dreams as people and places used to do, that a gift of another surface on which to rest one’s eyes, a surface that invites someone beyond and into themselves like the door of a wardrobe leading into an enchanted forest, may be a kindness beyond what we might even suppose. As work from home engulfs our days, the experts now recommend turning away from your screen every twenty minutes, turning off your camera for a few minutes during long meetings, turning your gadgets off as night comes. When you give a book, you do not just give a thing between covers to put on a shelf, you give a few hours curled in a chair, lost in thought, outside yourself, in a world shaped by imagination and sympathy rather than simulacra. The gift of a book may in 2021 say, I value you, my friend, by offering you and your dear exhausted mind a few hours of refuge.
What our subscribers are reading! Some highlights from 2020
Reginald Dwayne Betts, Letter to Yusef Komunyakaa
Alvaro Enrigue, Mexico’s Catcher in the Rye
Joy Williams on W. G. Sebald
Peter Books, Sally Rooney and the philosophy of the boudoir
John Guare on Sondheim
Brian Fagan on fish depletion
Ann Kjellberg is the founder and editor of Book Post.
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