Iceland book fact of the day

Icelanders bought 47% fewer books in 2017 than they did in 2010, a very sharp decrease in a matter of only six years. In a recent poll in Iceland, 13.5% of those who responded had not read a single book in 2017, compared to 7% in 2010.

Iceland has a wonderful tradition of giving books as Christmas presents, with people reading into the night on Christmas Eve. However, even this may be under threat: in 2005, an Icelander received an average of 1.4 books as gifts at Christmas; this number is now 1.1, with 42% of Icelanders not receiving a single book for Christmas according to the most recent poll…

Recent research shows an alarming rise in students under 15 struggling to read their own language. And they are picking up English at a much faster pace than before – it is not strange to hear them speaking it in the playground.

Here is the full story.


I’m somewhat saddened to learn about Iceland’s declining interest in books and reading, but I am still not quite sure how to think about the “market” for languages. Should there be state intervention on behalf of declining languages? Should those languages be “subsidized” in some way? I wonder how strongly people’s views on economics may correlate with their views on languages...

"state intervention on behalf of declining languages" is one way to describe 19th Century nationalism.

Ask the Irish if they think saving Gaelic is worth it, though the answer seems to be yes.

After all, English was the language of those who took over - and who then spent centuries extracting as much economic value as possible.

However, whether it is possible to stop - much less reverse - the decline of a language is hard to judge.

Basque seems to be doing OK, after 10,000 years or so.

If you ask them, they'll say it's worth it. If you watch them, you'll see they don't, which is why it's still declining (compare the 2011 and 2016 census figures, for example).

"English was the language of those who took over": as presumably Gaelic once was.

Sure, but nobody knows what language the Neanderthals spoke.

'If you watch them, you'll see they don't'

It is the listening that is the most important, however. And in general, you don't hear much spoken Gaelic. On the other hand, you do hear it, and to a certain extent, more from younger people than older ones, based on minimal personal experience.

Blame it on 'globalization' like Putin did with the recent school massacre, or the bailout made Icelanders think English was more cool? In Greece nobody speaks much English however. And when they do, like in Spanish, it's always with a thick 'mobster' accent that sounds very guttural and rude.

They are a town, some 340,000 people, smaller than my hometown. They will be swamped in globalization.

Yup. Population estimated at about 351k - about the size of Anaheim CA or Honolulu. As a US city, they'd rank ~56th (and that's pops of incorporated cities - consider metro areas and they're even less significant) They also have one of the highest Euro birthrates and a large population of under-18s -- which I'm sure has a lot to do with the decline in "books"; did they include e-books in the count? Finally, it seems to me what Icelandic kids are "speaking (anywhere)" (except proximate to an English as a foreign language class) is by definition Icelandic. Claiming that this word or that sentence structure (or whatever nonsense they're putting forward) isn't Icelandic because it originates somewhere else is about as ignorant or nationalistic (or both) as linguistics gets. What (living) language does not have any adoptive content? A person speaking X in a group of 100 people speaking Y will soon incorporate a lot of Y in his/her language. How is this remarkable?

The United States represents about 4.4 percent of the world's population.

At one time we were pretty positive about looking outward and reaching outward and making our mark on the whole world.

But lately of course, there is a fear that we should wall off and protect a single (largely mythical) culture.

If our culture — from reading habits, pro sports followin’, diet curiosity, tech sectors, roadway manners, sushi consumption patterns, latte consumption, civil rights history, celebrity veneration and celebrity denigration, to name but a few etc. etc. — is mythical then any culture is mythical.

How’s what WE do any more mythical than Pakistanis playing cricket, Afghans weaving, Huichols beading, Norwegians skiing, etc., you self loathing dotard!

If you can't name a half-dozen cultures native to the interior of the United States you aren't really trying.

Or to approach it another way, how many political parties claim they represent the one single US culture, while holding the contradictory position that their opponents do not?

Or to say it a third way, Provo ain't Berkeley, or Manhattan.

anonymous, you're an American? I can tell you that for a French, after thirteen years in the US, Provo=Berkeley=Manhattan=Baton Rouge=anywhere in the US, the differences being superficial and manly political (and politics is certainly the lowest form of culture).

I think there are at least three cultures in my small beach town: surfers, poor sailors, rich people.

The interesting thing is that all of those cultures would fit in more easily with their analogs in Australia than they would in Provo.

It could be an aspect of globalization that rich people, and surf or sail bums, start to look alike, and more unique native cultures become holdouts.

Is language diversity inherently good?

Yes, if one accepts the idea that no single language is able to encompass the totality of human experience.

This is not a Sapir-Whorf perspective. Anybody who speaks two languages realizes the advantages and disadvantages of each language, while recognizing that it is impossible to reconcile that fact with the idea of a single language.

(Yes, one can imagine many things concerning language, like in Delany's Babel-17, but that is SF, not reality. Though the idea of using the dead to help pilot starships, and searching for crew in the Discorporate Sector between voyages is typical of how casually Delany could come up with original concepts that are just part of the tale.)

Freeman Dyson's view is that the spread of English globally is risky in the way that having a single monoculture of a key crop is risky. Having one type of potato in Ireland in 1844 was very efficient, but was disastrous in 1846.

When I look at the spread of bad ideas around the ever-growing English speaking globe, I say, "Thank God the Japanese are inept at learning English."

10% of Japanese say they know English well enough to have a decent conversation in English, which is up from 5% in 1998.

They Aldo denied their war crimes in Asia until the bitter end.

At least Japan is no longer fascist. Can't say the same about Brazil. Nothing like a couple of US made nukes to bomb the fascism out of your people.

Freeman Dyson is a smart guy, but I think he missed this one. English is now a family of closely related but independently evolving modes of speech.

I seem to remember that Marginal Revolution had a humorous story on European corporate "English." I won't try to find that one, but related:

Published by the European Court of Auditors, which monitors the EU’s financial management, the document says: “Over the years, the European institutions have developed a vocabulary that differs from that of any other recognised form of English.” For example, EU documents use the word “actual” to mean “happening now” rather than something real or existing.

They say “ensure” when they mean “provide” (“ensure to patients with rare diseases universal access to high quality care”). They write “punctual” when they mean “occasional”, talking about “punctual expert group meetings”. Instead of appearing before “selection panels”, job candidates are interviewed by a “jury”.

It happens all over the world as a kind of jury-rigged(*) global language, and that's fine because we need one.

* - speaking of strange usage

Trivia: I have Icelandic heritage but speak English only.

More than 1/64? Sorry I couldn't resist :-)

I was told about 25% but who the heck knows. There might have been some funny business in Newfoundland.

Ah, here it is

How many man-years go into a book versus a movie? Leaving aside the printers and shelf-stockers, a book might take, what, 2 man-years by the author and another man-year by the agent, publisher, editor, cover-designer, etc.. So man-years 3 years of input in total for something that takes, say, 10 hours to read.

In contrast, movies typically have between 100 and 1000 people listed in the credits, so bigger movies must take a couple of orders more man-years of labor. So maybe 100 man years per hour to watch.

If you can now watch a movie per evening on a streaming service without having to go out to the video store on a cold winter's night in Iceland, it's not surprising that movies and TV shows are crowding out books.

you may or may not be right that people perceive movies as better value per hour invested. But simply totalling up the INPUT into movies vs. books is no to believe this. Movie making might be horribly inefficient, and most effort might be wasted in battling the medium. In fact, I believe that's what happens.

If anything, the economics of book making are astronomically superior to those of movie making, which results in a MUCH longer tail of fringe and niche works. Just consider the number of books vs. films produced each year. And still, the big winners in this market manage to become filthy rich

No, film's success is much simpler, it's mainly pornographic -- people's desire to watch sexually attractive human specimen on a big screen

Although there's some merit to the idea that we watch movies to see beautiful humans, I think it's much more that movie watching is a passive, easier endeavor than reading, and that a picture is worth 1000 words, etc.

Real men don't read books. That's why internet nerds on MR like you aren't real men.

Is it a reflection of immigration? Iceland has a high percentage of immigrants (about 10% of the total population and rising, projected to be 15% by 2030). Poles (by far the largest), Lithuanians, and Filipinos are the largest groups of immigrants. Before the 1990s, most of the immigrants were Scandinavian. Today, Iceland has a very high school dropout rate among young immigrants. Dropouts likely don't read. Language (Icelandic) might be part of the problem.

It helps to read the link before writing a comment (mea culpa). I'm right that this is a language issue, but not as I suspected. English (as opposed to Icelandic) is starting to dominate in Iceland, in large part due to English-speaking tourists which has exploded in recent years (but also access to the internet, films, etc. that are in English). But how does this explain the drop in reading books? Does the author mean a drop in reading books written in Icelandic? Or does the author mean that many books today available only in English aren't read by those who still read only Icelandic? Anyway, it's confusing.

No, tourists haven't exploded (as far as I know); it's tourism that has exploded.

... I have not read a normal, paper print book in years -- nor have I dialed a telephone, used a typewriter, or lit a kerosene lamp.

Technological progress is apparently bewildering to many....

Printed books are what separates US from animals.

This is happening in all the biggest reading nations. Germany and Japan also reported large declines.

"Following the economic crash of 2008, and the subsequent collapse of the Icelandic currency (making Iceland a much cheaper destination than before)"

That's pretty funny. Getting to Iceland is pretty cheap now, but pretty much everything else is almost comically expensive (Reykjavik now rates as Europe's 2nd-most expensive city):

Icelander learning more English is a cause for celebration. This is great news indeed.

Globalism is Great, according to Tyler, and we hear no end of praise of it's homogenising and universalising qualities.

Until it threatens his notions of ethnic folk traditions.

Will you will the means but not the ends, Tyler? The price of your universal culture (for those that don't follow an older god...) is the triumph of urbane profanity.

I read more books than before; however I read them online- kindle and web. Does that count as reading books ? My favorite current books are listed here - most are free to read online and are as good as any print books.

It is a general trend around the of the consequences of rapid-fire social media is that it is harder for many of us to concentrate in reading an actual book. This is not just something that happens to young people, but also to older guys like me, who were a bit of dedicated bookworms just two decades ago, but now find harder to concentrate and read an actual book.

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