Wednesday, May 03, 2017

The care and feeding of writers

Barbara here, writing from Iceland. This is a pleasure rather than a writing-related trip, but a writer always sees the world through the lens of words.

Iceland has only a little over 330,000 people, two thirds of whom live in Reykjavik, the capital city, but it has a vibrant arts, music, and literary scene. The gift shops are full of hand-crafted goods made by Icelanders, instead of the usual trinkets mass-produced somewhere in Asia. There are knitted goods, pottery, carvings, art... and books! Bookstores and libraries are everywhere, and a quick perusal of the bookstore shelves reveals a wealth of books in Icelandic, including numerous world-class crime writers whose books are not only devoured in their native tongue but translated and enjoyed the world over. One of Iceland's literary icons, Halldor Laxness, won the Nobel prize in 1955. All this in a country of only 330,000 people.

In the short time I've been here, I've noticed Iceland is fiercely proud and protective of its heritage, culture, and language, which is very close to the old Norse of more than a thousand years ago. Their culture is rooted in sagas of their origins, part fantastical, part myth, part historical. The family sagas were passed down orally for generations before being written down by storyteller historians. Tales of bravery, adventure, brotherly feuds, betrayal, and triumph. Storytelling, one might say, is bred in the bone. Through government policy and individual commitment, Iceland supports its culture and its artists, which allows a tiny population less than the size of most mid-sized western towns to provide a livelihood for its creative class. Something that English-speaking countries with populations hundreds of times greater, like Canada, struggle to do, and often fail.

Education is free through secondary school, which runs until age 20, and free also at the state universities, and there is a high level of literacy in Iceland. A culture of reading is supported both at the schools, through dedicated reading times, and at home. Grants and awards are available to support writers as well. I suspect that if I had time to delve deeper beneath the surface, I would find government policies and incentives to support local creators. Certainly in the bookstores, the small English book section contained translations of Icelandic crime writers (among other writers) instead of the usual American or British blockbuster thrillers that feature most prominently in bookstores in English speaking countries.

Iceland's geographical isolation and unique language no doubt contribute to the thriving indigenous book scene, but like many Europeans, most of the people I encountered, from store clerks to mechanics at the tire store, spoke English remarkably well and were plugged into the larger global scene. But they also seem to believe that art and literature, in particular their own, are worth preserving. In a world increasingly homogenized by international corporate juggernauts, if we want to preserve the richness of regional, personal, and cultural diversity, we would do well to take a page from Iceland's book.


Charlotte Hinger said...

I would love to visit Iceland and you've made it seem even more appealing.

Sybil Johnson said...

I'd love to go there, too. It sounds like a very interesting place.

Rick Blechta said...

I had a friend (now deceased) who was in Iceland every chance he got. From all I've heard, it seems a very civilized country and a beautiful one, as well. I'm sure I'm speaking for all of us, but we are envious!

Donis Casey said...

I've been to Iceland twice, but only long enough to change planes. I've always been fascinated, though, and even wrote a book about Icelanders back in my youth. I have heard that Iceland is the most literate country in the world, with an 100% literacy rate. I believe there is a tradition of giving books on Christmas eve, as well.

Sybil Johnson said...

Interesting about the literacy rate. I love the tradition of giving books at Christmas.

Barbara Fradkin said...

It is truly unique in our global world, beautiful, gentle, polite, and helpful in a reserved way. I had heard about the 100% literacy rate, but I think there are different definitions so am not sure what that means. But certainly books, writers, bookstores, and publishing are thriving.