Thursday, 4 March 2010


It’s World Book Day, so I thought I’d indulge in a little light dusting of the bookshelves. I had no idea this was going to be such a complex operation.

Whether it is the long darkness of winter, the delights of hytte isolation, or a country-wide fondness for literary stimulation, it turns out the Norwegians buy more books, and read more than almost any other nationality, with the possible exception of the Brits. It seems it’s catching. Somehow, when I wasn’t even looking, my bookshelves went forth and multiplied.

So now, I have a ‘library’. It’s not as grand as it sounds, but the label has a nice ring. As I let rip with the duster I began to be obsessed. I scrutinized, catalogued, and placed all those for keeping into alphabetical order within subject sections. While I realise you will think this is the work of the mind-numbingly bored, I reckon I’ve created a small heaven. There is a section of brick-like, weighty tomes of darkly-brooding Scandinavian literature. There is a thrilling section on skiing. There is an explorer’s department. There are guides to flora and fauna, mountains and fjords, cities and countries. There is a heap on snow and a shelf on ice. There are some arty coffee-table numbers awash with unfeasibly beautiful photographs of this country. There are a few natty little Norwegian joke books. There is a row of illustrated Nordic folktales. And there is a rampantly over-optimistic shelf-load of books telling me how to learn Norsk in less than ten minutes.

Once I had ordered my library into a geek’s paradise, there were several bags of surplus books, still in good nick, but not essential for the intellectual enhancement of the rest of my life. It was very cleansing, but it created a problem. At home, I would have hoiked them down to the charity shop, but here, understandably, the charity shops seem to be more interested in books in actual Norsk.

I have always been a huge fan of public libraries. On different occasions, these wondrous institutions have provided far more than free reading, entertainment and information. They have offered shelter, warmth, peace, inspiration, comfy seats, an illicit meeting place, a wee nook in which to sook the odd joob-joob, and a welcome sanctuary from the chaos outside. So, on arriving in Norway, I was thrilled to find a fabulous library service run along similar lines to that of Scotland. Its sizeable English section was available not just in the central town library, but astonishingly within the smaller, satellite branches too. It seemed to cater for the local multi-cultural population with admirable efficiency and global consideration. So when I asked if they could use my bags of books and they welcomed them with open arms, I was overjoyed.

In the eighteenth century, both Scotland and Norway had one of the highest literacy rates in Europe. Nowadays, despite the increasing lust for electronic books of one kind or another, libraries here appear to be thriving. Even on a Sunday afternoon, when everything else is firmly shut, the town library gamely opens its doors to hoards of book-lovers.

I’m pleased to report this library idea appears to have sprung from Scotland. There had been libraries elsewhere since ancient times, but the first ‘circulating’ or lending libraries were established by the Scots poet Allan Ramsay in Edinburgh in 1725. The idea quickly took hold, and in 1853 the Public Libraries Act prompted the funding of lending libraries through local taxation throughout Britain. When Dunfermline-born Andrew Carnegie had established himself and his giant fortune in the USA, he considered libraries so vital to a civilized nation that his foundation became responsible for the construction of almost 1,700 of them between 1900 and 1917.

I raced home to my own personal library, and screamed. Why is it that as soon as I clear a space, someone dumps something in it? I was forced to raise my voice.


Incidentally, the Scandie books are all staying. But I might add to the collection, and I don’t want to miss any gems. So, let me know which piece of Scandinavian literature you can’t live without.


  1. love this blog .. always so full of energy and joi de vivre ... you are most welcome to come and tidy my bookcase anytime!! Have tweeted your story round the globe as a reminder to all about World Book Day.

  2. The trilogy written by Trygve Emanuel Gulbranssen in the thirties was translated into more than 30 languages and sold more than 12 million copies worldwide.

    -Beyond sing the woods
    -The wind from the mountains
    -No way around

    This is a (forgotten) gem, and a must to take back to Scotland.

  3. Rob...tusen takk.
    Tor...nice suggestion....will do.

  4. My long-time hero Jan Egeland published a book two winters ago called 'Det Nytter' (published in November 2007 and losely translated as 'It Helps') about his years working mostly for the UN. There is an English translation, 'A billion lives' (published in March 2008) but the Norwegian version is very readable and seems more authentic to me. I imagine you know Egeland, but if you don't... he is from Stavanger and spent a lifetime working for the UN and other charitable organisations. A couple of years ago he was the UN's vice secretary general and Kofi Annan's Emergency Relief Coordinator. He has made some enemies along the road, mostly because he has a tendency to tell the truth and not spare the main UN donors or the war criminals in charge of the areas he has worked in. But however controversial in some (political) quarters, the man is a hero, you can take my word for it.

  5. Wim
    Seems as though Norway has some Grade A Full On heroes...I'll have a go at 'Det Nytter' in Norsk, and if I ever get to the end, I will award myself a giant chocolate troll.
    I might be some time.