Books of Christmas Past

My original intention with this post was to write about beautifully designed books from past years but I admit I lost my way a bit. No matter, it was mostly an excuse to talk about a lovely book published last year called “Íslenskir fuglar” by Benedikt Gröndal.

Benedikt Gröndal was a very talented man. He was a poet, artist and a natural scientist. He was the first director of The Icelandic Natural History Society in 1889 whose main goal was to build a Museum of Natural History in Reykjavík. This guy did a lot more interesting stuff but I honestly can’t be bothered to translate it right now. Maybe some other day.

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Benedikt Gröndal did some calligraphy too.

Anyway, last year Crymogea published Íslenskir fuglar which he finished in 1900 but it was never published. In this book he documented all birds seen in Iceland before 1900. He drew them, described them and wrote down what was known about each species at the time. This book is amazing. There are two versions of it. The normal one you can buy in book stores and the special edition. The special edition is bound in leather and comes in a wooden box. They only made 100 copies and each copy is numbered. It is, of course, pretty expensive.

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Paper package.

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Edges.

The regular version is awesome too. It comes packed in paper and on the front is written in Benedikt Gröndal’s handwriting: “This book is my property and has nothing to do with the financial aid given to me by the Parliament”. They left in a lot of his own writing and even used his original calligraphed title page. When his own handwriting wasn’t used, they use a typewriter font so it keeps with the old manuscript feel of the whole thing.

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Lovely pattern.

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List of birds.

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No more caffeine for this owl.

The drawings are brilliant. They’re obviously not quite what they do these days but you can just feel the passion and enthusiasm he had for nature. Benedikt Gröndal was definitely a pioneer in this area in Iceland. For this one guy to sit down and meticulously document not only birds but also plants and mammals at a time when Iceland was…well lets just say things were pretty shitty. Good job Crymogea for publishing this book.

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The Great Auk. Extinct since the mid-19th century.

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Eurasian Curlew.

Now when I decided to do this post I was quite optimistic about finding more brilliantly designed books published in Iceland in the past few years but I honestly came up a bit short. I must say the design of Icelandic book covers has improved dramatically in the last couple of years.

While desperately searching through Bókatíðindi I came across a couple of books whose popularity astounded me at the time. One such book is “Sumarlandið – framliðnir lýsa andláti sínu og endurfundum í framlífinu” or “Summerland – the deceased describe their death and reunions in the afterlife”. Yes that is the title and it sold out completely before christmas 2010, was reprinted in February 2011 and sold out again.

When it shot up the bestseller list in 2010 I remember briefly thinking that maybe we are a little bit weird as a nation. But it’s really not that surprising. We do have a reputation of readily believing all sorts of stuff. The book has a good message and was published by Guðmundur Kristinsson, a writer in his eighties who has quite a bit of experience in writing about these things. According to Bókatíðindi, it was published due to encouragement from beyond and when the dead encourage something I really do think it’s best to comply. And it all worked out. I’ll bet the big publishers were a bit annoyed at this surprise bestseller.

Another book that took me completely by surprise was “Og svo kom Ferguson…” or “And then came Ferguson”. It’s about Ferguson tractors in Iceland. When I first saw it I couldn’t help but wonder who would buy this book. Turns out lots of people did. If I remember correctly it also sold out before Christmas 2010 much to my amazement but in a cultural and historical context it all makes sense. Ferguson tractors were start of mechanisation in Icelandic agriculture. Before Ferguson tractors came to the country farmers used mostly people and small horses. As someone raised in the city what would I know about the importance of tractors? Interestingly enough a second book was published in 2011, this time about Farmall tractors.

Now I’d like to end this post on a low note because, why the hell not? The following is the worst book cover I’ve ever seen. It also came out in 2010 (clearly a weird year in publishing) and its name is Blowballs all over the place (it sounds even worse in English).

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Share the pain, that’s my motto.

Yes, those are naked people with blowballs (such a silly word) as heads. And yes, this book is real. When we opened the box containing this wonder we honestly didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. It’s just oh so bad.

Design highlights from the Icelandic book season

Gísli from Uppsalir

Like so many professional illustrators, I just happen to work in retail. My particular expertise is actually art supplies but the store I work in also sells office supplies and books. And since now is the most exciting time in Icelandic publishing, I’d like to talk about a few books coming out in this year’s Christmas Book Flood. During this time a lot of our effort goes into piling up books on massive tables, constantly changing the prices in attempt to have the best offers and flipping through “Bókatíðindi” (Bókatíðindi is a catalogue that lists all the books published this year) trying our utmost to memorise every single book.

There are some surprisingly good book covers this year and overall lovely designs. I just want to mention some that caught my eye. Now, I’m aware that most of you can’t actually read any of these books but at least you can look at the pretty pictures.

The first one I’d like to show you is called “Gísli í Uppsölum”. It’s a book about man most people over a certain age in Iceland know about. Gísli was basically a hermit thatlived on a farm in Iceland in almost complete isolation with only his animals as company and no technology. It was only in 1984 that he was introduced to the nation through a TV show called “Stiklur”. Now we have a book about his life, his family and the bullying he endured. Definitely a must-read in my opinion.

Not only is this book interesting but it also visually stunning. There are some gorgeous photographs featured in it and instead of piling them up in the middle like so many biographies do, they blend in beautifully with the text. They’re not printed on special glossy paper but instead simply printed on the same paper as the rest of the book.

First Chapter Spread

13th chapter: the unexpected guest

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Last example from Gísli á Uppsölum

Now another book that caught my eye for it’s clever design is called “ð ævisaga” which pretty much translates to ð a biography. It’s the story of the letter ð, from its origins in the writings of Anglo-Saxon monks and how it became an inseparable part of the Icelandic alphabet. As far as letters go, I think ð is one of the more interesting ones but this book is definitely not for everyone (although I kinda want it because I’m easily swayed by pretty covers and ð is kinda interesting and why did we start using it in the first place? I actually do sort of want to know).

The biography of the ð

I’m always attracted to simplicity and the cover of ð ævisaga is just that. And I love their use of colour. From the bright green title page to the red chapter breaks and little bits of red text. It’s very visually accessible which makes sense since there are three graphic designers involved in the writing of the book (and one historian).

Ð examples

Ð in signage

Now these are the first two books I’d like to mention but I’d also like to quickly express my  delight in the republishing of some of my favourite Scandinavian children’s literature. Ronia (by Astrid Lindgren) was one of my favourite books as a child and one of the few children’s books I could read without crying in frustration (I’m looking at you Enid Blyton). And The Brothers Lionheart (also by Astrid Lindgren) is such a lovely, heartbreaking and traumatising story. A must read for all children.

They also republished one of Ole Lund Kirkegaard’s books. I’m not sure English speakers are familiar with him but he wrote some of the weirdest, wackiest books of my childhood. In one of his books a couple of kids draw a rhino on a wall and it comes alive. Another is about a boy who’s physically weak and gets bullied at school. He then meets a witch that makes him strong for a day so he gets a chance to show up his bullies only to become weak again the next day and life goes back to the way things were. I think it’s very important for kids to read books with a good message so I really do hope they continue republishing his work.

News, updates, and the Icelandic book market

I’ve been mouthing off all over the place over the last few days, as usual.

I’ve been trying to convince my sister to blog here but she’s suffering a bit of blog anxiety.

One of the subjects she wants to blog about is one she cannot believe anybody would be interested in. The conversation went roughly as follows (translating and paraphrasing from Icelandic, of course):

Jenný: I’d like to blog about the Icelandic book market. There are a few books coming out that have unusually good covers. I’d also like to write about some of the weird and quirky books that are published here on a regular basis. And there are a few really interesting reissues of historically important Icelandic books that I think I could blog about. Do you think anybody would be interested?

Me: Awesome!

She: Does that mean you think people would be interested?

Me: Would they? Of course. Book geeks love hearing about that sort of thing. Hell, I’d love to read those posts.


Jenný remained sceptical.

My sister works in the Icelandic book industry and has a front row seat for observing the Icelandic Christmas book season. I can’t think of anybody more qualified to comment on it than her.

And I’m pretty sure that updates, weirdness, and stuff about the unique Icelandic book market would make for great blog posts. So, am I right or am I wrong? What do you guys think?