Sólveig Pálsdóttir loves The Book Title Game and Christmas would not be the same without it
‘When I was a child Iceland had only one TV station and one radio station, both run by the state broadcaster. The radio almost never played any popular music but mainly just symphonies. But there were also many beautifully produced programmes and every Thursday evening there was a drama. That was when we could hear the voices of our finest actors, and in many homes these were precious moments. There was no TV on Thursdays. Why? Well, because TV was considered to be a lower form of culture – even downright harmful. For these reasons the authorities ensured that Icelanders watched TV only six evenings a week from eight til eleven in the evening. There was no TV at all in July, as that’s when people were expected to take their holidays as a break from all that unhealthy screen time and spend their bright summer evenings outdoors. The state monopoly on TV and radio was finally abolished in 1985.
It’s in our nature to find what we see little of, or which is even forbidden, as particularly attractive. Practically everyone in Iceland watched the same programmes (which were normally a few years old by the time they reached us) such as American soap opera Dallas, or the British TV programme Upstairs, Downstairs. The day after some programme had been shown, there would be discussions in homes and workplaces over whether Sue Ellen had started drinking again, and whether or not she should divorce JR Ewing. Almost everyone had a strong opinion on the way these fictional characters lived their lives. Scarce TV material made even well-acted advertisements almost as popular as the programmes themselves. People learned the ads inside out, and some of these turned into popular classics.
The peak of the advertising fun was the weeks before Christmas because that’s when the books are published. Some of you have undoubtedly heard of Iceland’s Christmas book flood (Jólabókaflóð) when the majority of books are published between October and mid-December. These are hectic weeks as the advertising battle reaches its zenith. Around mid-November the Bókatíðindi (Book News) list is distributed to every home in the country, in which every single new book gets a short introduction. The arrival of Book News was always eagerly awaited, and there was nothing unusual about being familiar with all of the main titles and marking the ones that would make an acceptable gift with a cross.
It’s not just a tradition to give books as gifts in Iceland, but also large Christmas family gatherings are very widespread. I was brought up with three or four of these taking place every Christmas, and as well as eating well, dancing around the tree and singing together, there was always what we called the Book Title Game.
The family divided into two or three groups, depending on how large the party was. In my family there were usually 40 to 50 people. Then each group would choose ten or so book titles to enact. The other groups had to guess the title and was given a set time to guess the answer. Turns were taken until one group or the other had amassed more points for their correct title guesses.
I don’t remember a Christmas without the Book Title Game being played, and it was always fun. Every age group took part, with the youngest acting out the titles of children’s books. This annual event, the Book Title Game, is one of my dearest childhood memories. I’m not sure that it would be possible to play the game these days. Instead of books being the ideal choice for a gift and each family member receiving five or six, now people generally receive just one book. This doesn’t mean that the Icelandic Christmas Book Flood is any less than it was but it’s now more common for people to buy their books earlier and read them in comfort during Advent. To my mind, this is an excellent tradition and there’s nothing that says Christmas like getting into a warm bed on Christmas night with the smell of dinner still in the air and a brand-new book in your hand.’