The Christmas gift-giving season can be a stressful time--and I'm not just talking about battling store crowds or worrying that the world has come to an end as you find yourself stuck in an airport experiencing a massive power outage at the height of the holiday travel season.

Choosing gifts that you think your friends and loved ones will enjoy, appreciate, and, importantly, actually use is a delicate task that can test your patience and sanity. So much time, money, and emotional energy is poured into buying stuff that often goes unused, is passed on to someone else, or just gets discarded.

The folks in Iceland, by contrast, observe a very different gift-giving tradition. Rather than obsess over exchanging electronic gadgets, DNA testing kits, and Keurig Coffee Makers, they give each other more entertaining, and also more intellectually and emotionally enriching items: Books.

Icelanders' love of books has earned them a global reputation as being a country of bookaholics. A study conducted by Bifröst University in 2013 found that half the country's population read at least eight books a year. In 2009, Icelanders borrowed 1.2 million books from the Reykjavík City Library--in a city of only 200,000 people. There's even a popular TV show devoted entirely to books.

Iceland has developed a vibrant publishing industry to help feed its citizens' hunger for books. With just over 330,000 inhabitants, the total number of books published each year in Iceland is far smaller than most other nations. But on a per capita basis, Iceland publishes more books than any other country in the world, with five titles published for every 1,000 Icelanders, according to NPR.

Icelanders' devotion to reading is most evident in a remarkable tradition they observe: Between September and November, publishers launch a book publishing tsunami known as the Jolabokaflod, which in English translates roughly into the "Christmas Book Flood." The annual Flood kicks-off with the printing of the Bokatidindi, a catalog of new publications distributed free to every Icelandic home, courtesy of the Iceland Publishers Association (of course).

On Christmas eve, Icelanders exchange books as gifts and then spend the night reading them, often while drinking hot chocolate or alcohol-free Christmas ale called jólabland. "The culture of giving books as presents is very deeply rooted in how families perceive Christmas as a holiday," Kristjan B. Jonasson, president of the Iceland Publishers Association, told NPR.

The Book Flood tradition, according to The Reykjavik Grapevine's Hildur Knutsdottir, dates to World War II, when strict currency restrictions limited imports of most gift-making materials and products--with the exception of paper. "The restrictions on imported paper were more lenient than on other products, so the book emerged as the Christmas present of choice. And Icelanders have honored the tradition ever since," Knutsdottir writes.

Contrast this beautiful tradition with the annual mania generated by the physical and virtual shopping events known as "Black Friday" and "Cyber Monday" in the US, and "Singles' Day" in China. These nationwide festivals of consumerism are, in my opinion, sadly casting more people into deeper levels of debt, and expanding the stock of waste clogging the world's closets and landfills.

Shouldn't we learn from our brothers and sisters in Iceland and inaugurate our own Christmas Book Flood? Christopher Norris, a media and publishing executive and social entrepreneur, is trying to do just that. In November 2015, he launched the Jolabokaflod Book Campaign, a social movement that is trying to spark a similar passion for exchanging books during the holiday season. 

The mission statement on the campaign's website explains the purpose and philosophy of the movement: "We believe that reading books is a life-enhancing activity, made even more special by the memories associated with receiving gifts of books from loved ones. We further believe that well-read communities are closer-knit groups, so the buying and reading of books helps to improve social cohesion and celebrate cultural diversity through the sharing of stories and information...Essentially, we want to inspire people to discover--and rediscover--a love of reading for pleasure."

In this age of one-click shopping and next-day delivery of stuff that often has little enduring value or purpose, that adds to consumers' financial burdens, and which pollutes the environment, the idea of a worldwide Jolabokaflod movement is immensely appealing. 

This article also appeared on LinkedIn.

Published on: Dec 20, 2017