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Books in the living room: A grand old Icelandic tradition

A view of my TBR shelves from when I was experimenting with colours.
Displaying the finest volumes of the family library in the living room is a good old Icelandic tradition.  Visit an Icelander of my parents’ generation or older, and it is likely that there will be books in the living room, even in the humblest of homes. It might be one shelf, incorporated into a unit also displaying such dust catchers as crystal, ceramics, family photos, small stuffed animals and the family stereo system. On the other hand, it might just be a whole book-case. The books on such public display will generally be nice-looking ones, bound in leather or faux leather, with gilded spines and always looking suspiciously new. There will often be whole oeuvres of works by particular authors, all from the same publisher and in the same identical bindings. You will in all likelihood spot the name of Halldór Laxness on book-spines on such shelves, as well as those of Jónas Hallgrímsson, Davíð Stefánsson and Gunnar Gunnarsson, along with the Sagas and Tales of Chivalry, and possibly some Guðmundur Kamban and Stephan G. Stephansson and collections of Icelandic folk-tales and chronicles, not to forget the family Bible and possibly some acceptable translated works of world literature, including Shakespeare and Dumas, in tasteful brown, green or black faux leather bindings.

Suspicion as to whether these gleaming volumes have ever been read might rear its head in the mind of the onlooker, but it is unlikely that the owners will ever admit to not having read every single volume. Comment that they certainly have a fine taste in literature, and they may give you a cheeky grin and lead you into one of the rooms usually not shown to guests. This may be a bedroom or an office, or even a designated book-room. This where they keep the translated thrillers of Alistair MacLean, Desmond Bagley, Jack Higgins, Ken Follett and Sven Hassell. You may find an entire collection of translated Sherlock Holmes books and the lovely tan volumes containing the translations of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit (although these are just as likely to be found in the living room), nestled between the potboilers of Sidney Sheldon and Jackie Collins on one side and the romance novels of Mary Stewart, Victoria Holt, Phyllis A. Whitney, Sigge Stark, Danielle Steel and Ib H. Cavling on the other.

There will be other translated foreign authors, such as Régine Désforges and Agatha Christie, probably a complete or partial set of the translated Time-Life History of the Second World War and possibly a tastefully dust-cover free and well-thumbed translation of Anais Nin’s Delta of Venus, in addition to Icelandic authors not considered respectable enough for the living room, such as suspense author Birgitta Halldórsdóttir, romance author Snjólaug Bragadóttir, and that epic chronicler of country life and coffee-drinking, Guðrún frá Lundi. All of these books will be in handsome hard-cover bindings showing various levels of wear.

There may also be row upon row of much-read, wrinkly-spined paperbacks, some Icelandic but most foreign, including possibly a couple of rows of Norwegian historical fantasy author Margit Sandemo’s series The Legend of the Ice People in translation (belonging to the lady of the house) and some Morgan Kane books by Louis Masterson (belonging to the man of the house).

These days younger people are less concerned than the older generations with being judged for having foreign books and/or genre literature on their shelves, and many will happily display all their hardcover books and the nicest-looking of their paperbacks in the living room, regardless of genre or author.

Visit a person of my generation, and you may find some of the same authors in the living room, if there are any books there at all, but they will probably be sitting side by side with the handsome black bindings with silver lettering that contain the hard-cover versions of the books of Arnaldur Indriðason and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, and, if the person reads translations, hard-cover editions of the translated works of Stephen King, Dan Brown, John Grisham, Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell. The back room will contain more paperbacks than hard-covers in both Icelandic and their foreign language(s) of choice. The Sherlock Holmes books will probably be in the original English, as will the collected works of Shakespeare and Agatha Christie.

I am an atypical Icelandic book-lover in this respect. I have no bookshelves in my living room and the only books you will find there are the ones I am reading at any given moment. This is mostly due to the fact that I have a south-facing living room and I don’t want to expose my books to the sun, but also because my bookshelves are old and ugly. However, I am on the verge of making the leap. I would dearly love to put up built-in bookcases along one of the walls in my hall, but until I have the money to make a good job of it, I will probably put the overflow from the office and bedroom in the living room. I have my eye on the second-largest of the Ikea Expedit shelving units, because it is deep enough for double stacking and can be used to make a tasteful room divider with the spines of books looking out from both sides.

Inspired by this display of Icelandic home libraries


Heartbeatoz said…
What a wonderful Tradition my Books are in the Hallway and my Study which I recently Painted and upgraded the bookcases to the Ikea Expedit Shelves which are great for Double Stacking and even Triple stacking if you have Paperbacks.
George said…
I cannot bring myself to double stack books. I just buy more shelving.
Bibliophile said…
You're lucky to be able to do that, George. All the available space in both my bedroom and my office is taken up by bookshelves which will fill up completely within a couple of years. I can't get ready-made shelving for my hallway that is shallow enough for only one layer of books, and I can't fit deeper shelving in there, so built-in it will have to be, but that is very, very expensive even if I do all the work myself.

The good thing about Expedit shelving is that it's designed to be free-standing so you can have the spines of double-stacked books facing out from both sides. It's like library shelving in that respect, except it looks a lot nicer.
Dorte H said…
Thank you for this tour of the Icelandic home!

Most of our friends are readers, and they have books in the living-room, but I think the only ´system´ is that the more books they read, the less systematic they are - because the books are for use, not for display :)

We don´t have that many books in our own living-room, but somehow my TBR has wormed its way in there.

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