Iceland is a nation of writers and readers, according to the BBC. They say that one in 10 Icelanders will publish a book, and that the tiny country (population 300,000) has more books read per capita than anywhere else in the world. The Icelanders even have a folk expression that means, literally, “everyone has a book in their stomach.” Apparently in the fall every household gets publishers’ catalogues delivered, and they pore over them for their Christmas presents. Tour guides recite poetry; public benches spew recorded stories.
The BBC’s reporter Rosie Goldsmith theorizes that this literary affinity stems from the great tradition of Icelandic sagas, and the fact that the winters are long and dark with not much else to do but tell stories. (This idea echoes a claim made by William Butler Yeats: “It is said the most eloquent people in the world are the Arabs, who have only the bare earth of the desert and a sky swept bare by the sun.”) The Icelanders also claim that they were invigorated to love books by their Nobel literature win in 1955 (Halldor Laxness, in case you’ve forgotten).
All this bodes well for Canada: long winters, check, Nobel laureate, check... and yet we still seem to prefer the Canadian Tire catalogue over the latest from McClelland & Stewart. And the population of my neighbourhood in west end Toronto is probably the same as that of Iceland, with the same proportion of novelists. It’s just that we don’t get published, we don’t make a living at it, we don’t have talking benches, we don’t have any saga history signs, and we don’t have any tour guides at all, poetry reciting or otherwise.
I think Nordic Europeans are simply cleverer than we are. Consider the television of Norway, which you could call strangely boring or exhilaratingly avant-gardist. Popular shows there have included a seven-hour railway track shot (the entire rocky, hilly, snow-covered trip from Bergen to Oslo, which aired in 2009) and an uninterrupted 30-hour interview with crime writer and public intellectual Hans Olav Lahlum. According to the Wall Street Journal, 2.5 million Norwegians tuned in to watch the 134-hour-long live camera feed from a ferry plowing through the rough coastal waters. That’s half the population. And when the national broadcaster, NRK, showed an 18-hour live-cast of salmon swimming upstream, some viewers complained that it was too short. Norwegians find this kind of thing relaxing.
This is odd, because their fiction is big on crime – all murders and dark fascist conspiracies. Apparently this is true for Iceland too – the bulk of those Christmas presents are crime novels.
Whereas here, our TV dramas are all guns and goons, and it’s our novels that are salmon swimming upstream. (To simplify somewhat.) Maybe we have it backward. Maybe we need more dashboard-mounted cameras crossing the Trans-Canada somewhere around Edmundston, N.B., live-streaming all night long, on our public broadcaster, to remind us that we too have stunningly uneventful landscapes, indeed far more and far longer ones than puny Norway has – why aren’t we all similarly galvanized by our gloomy hibernal wastelands into ever gorier storytelling?
Seriously, though, the Norwegian preoccupation with slow television does say something about the culture, and it’s perhaps not unrelated to the success of written narratives in that part of the world. Apparently when that 30-hour interview with the crime novelist aired, schoolteachers allowed classes to be suspended so that their eager students could tune in, workplaces stopped functioning. The fun of it was that the whole country – admittedly a more homogeneous place than ours – was following the same conversation at once. (This is probably a uniquely contemporary phenomenon too, as social media meta-conversations no doubt added to its impact.)
Fascinated by the idea of the unadorned train-trip footage, I went online and located a bunch of similarly slow and wordless train-camera films. You will not be surprised to learn that this is a thing. People – many inspired by the 2009 Norwegian event – stick a camera in the front window of a locomotive and let it roll, from one station to another. Then they post the whole thing without edits on YouTube. They can be quaint and picturesque – like the mountain ride from Zermatt to Gornergrat, Switzerland, less than one hour – or killingly bleak, like the five-hour trip from Karratha to Tom Price in the flat Australian outback. They are really lulling and pleasant to watch, or to have on in the background while you do something else. They are romantic and inspiring – their eerie silences suggest mysterious characters and reasons for their trip. It’s funny how, once framed on a screen, they can’t be seen as anything but settings for stories.