Celebrating the jólabókaflóð tradition this year? Here’s how!

The jólabókaflóð tradition began in Iceland in WWII. — photo by Ron Kroetz

As a child, I always received — and read in its entirety — a book on Christmas Eve. My family had no idea we were taking part in a decades old tradition; we’re just that nerdy. Regardless, I am deeply aware of the joy of curling up with a new story on a cold night, and I suspect that many of you are, too. Jólabókaflóð is a holiday tradition perfect for deeply passionate book nerds, and it has surged in popularity in the U.S. in recent years.

Jólabókaflóð, roughly translated as “Yule book flood” and pronounced (again, roughly) /yo-la-bok-a-flot/, originated in Iceland during World War II. Paper, unlike many other commodities, was not rationed during the war, making books a perfect option for gift exchanges. Today, Iceland is the third most literate country in the world. It’s capital, Reykjavik, joined Iowa City as a UNESCO City of Literature — the fifth such designated — in 2011. And a 2013 study found that half the country’s population reads eight or more books each year.

At the heart of that is jólabókaflóð. Each year since 1944, publishers in Iceland have sent a comprehensive, free catalog in mid-November to every home in the country setting out all of the books to be published that year in the weeks before Christmas (when most new books are published). Families order their gifts from each other out of this catalog, exchange on Christmas Eve, and traditionally, spend that night much like my younger self — curled up with a new story.

Here in the area surrounding Iowa City, our own City of Literature, there are numerous options to pick up a book or 12 to bring the Icelandic tradition of jólabókaflóð home to your own family. We’re not only blessed with a plethora of knowledgeable local booksellers, we’ve also got our own flood of local writers to choose from. Check out a few of the options below, along with recommendations from some local sellers.

The ‘Wapsipinicon Almanac,’ published since 1988, on display at Prairie Lights. — photo courtesy of Kathleen Johnson

Prairie Lights

Since 1978, Prairie Lights Bookstore has been fostering the book habits of Iowa Citians with a beautifully curated selection and a welcoming atmosphere. Among the Iowa books available there is the recently released Hancher: the Building, a retrospective on the construction of the new Hancher illustrated with lush photos. Prairie Lights has a section dedicated to authors who have read there recently, many of whom are local authors, and many local authors consider it a point of pride to see their work on the shelf at Prairie Lights.

“I think the perfect jólabókaflóð gift produced locally would be the Anamosa printed, New Yorker/Farmer’s Almanac crossbreed, the Wapsipinicon Almanac,” Prairie Lights Fiction Buyer/Events Coordinator Kathleen Johnson said in an email. “Cozy cocoa drinking, fireside reading!”

Next Page Books

Cedar Rapids’ Next Page Books is a relative newcomer to the area book market, established in 2012. It has made a home for itself, though, in the popular New Bohemia district, nestled next to CSPS Hall. If you stop in this weekend, you can make use of your newfound knowledge of the pronunciation of jólabókaflóð (again, /yo-la-bok-a-flot/): The store is having a sale where you can get 20 percent off of your most expensive item (subject to restrictions) if you mention jólabókaflóð at checkout.

Owner Bart Carithers offered a list of favorite local books to explore, noting in an email, “It’s always a feel-good moment when we sell a book written by a local author.” He recommends From a Distance, the novel released this year from Larry Baker; 2016’s The Brown Bottle Squeeze, by J.T. Roberts; Randy Roeder’s Sins of Intent and the children’s picture book Creekfinding: A True Story, both also released this year.

The Haunted Bookshop

Another 1978 entry onto the Iowa City scene, the Haunted Bookshop is a favorite destination for anyone who wants a cat around to assist in their literary excursions. It’s Iowa City’s oldest second-hand bookseller, and its deep sense of community means that work by Iowa authors is never hard to find there.

Iowa City’s Larry Baker also got some love from the Haunted Bookshop’s Nialle Sylvan, who included his 2009 A Good Man on her list of recommendations. She also included the humor/poetry book A Visit from St. Alphabet by Dave Morice, A Questionable Shape by Bennett Sims, which Sylvan described in her email as: “if David Foster Wallace had written a zombie novel,” and The Ultimate Actualist Convention, a book about the writing scene in Iowa City in the 1970s, by Cinda Kornblum and Morty Sklar.

Daydreams Comics

Daydreams celebrated 30 years in Iowa City last year, and has ties to the local comic creators community that go beyond even stocking the titles — a young Phil Hester (a University of Iowa graduate) drew advertising posters for the store back when they were in the Hall Mall in the late ’80s.

Hester’s series Mythic was collected into a trade last year, as was local writer Sean Lewis’ Saints. Lewis’ The Few was collected this past August. Look for work from Aaron Gillespie and Eric Gapstur on the shelves as well.

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