Iceland is veritably tiny, with a population of just under 330,000 people living on its fierce volcanic land mass in the North Atlantic. A tiny part of Iceland (a coastal island) trespasses into the Arctic Circle and its capital Reykjavik is the northernmost capital city in the world.
Perhaps due to their geographical location, their isolation, the long winter nights and cold seasons (as well as those volcanoes and the ice!), Icelanders read and publish more books per capita than most other countries in the world. Reading seems to be inherent to the Icelandic psyche and the country has a literacy rate of a perfect 100%.
I was wandering through the annals of yet another bookshop and had a chance to see a lot of the Penguin Black Classics collection. Celebrating the 80th year of Penguin, there were initially 80 books sold for 80p each. They ranged across a myriad of topics and recently, a further 46 have been added.
Standing in front of them (and adding some to my already full arms..) I got to thinking about the best short books I’ve read and how sometimes, we don’t need a lot of works to make a good point.
I had real trouble coming up with a headline for this one, so let me explain as best I can. You know those books you read that transport you to other places in such a way that you really feel you’re living in them? You look up after a few chapters and realise that you’re still on your couch in your yoga pants and haven’t actually left the room at all? Those books.When words can transport me to another place in a significant way, somehow the book always ends up in my favourites list.
This year, I decided to step outside my comfort zone when it came to reading and challenge myself a little. I decided to go back to the classics. You know, the ones with those beautiful Penguin classics covers, or the ones you can get on Amazon for almost nothing. You know the ones I’m talking about- the sort of book they either made you read in school (resulting in casual resentment) or the ones you struggled through in university (more resentment)- or indeed, the one tome gifted to your parents by Great Aunt Mildred, which your mother has been using a doorstop since the 1970s.
The classics have a bad reputation for being mean, fastidious and immovable beasts of burden. They are vastly the product of male authors (with notable exceptions) and therefore the cultural context they present might be seen as old-fashioned, or even periodic.
Bookshops in other countries can be completely beautiful- and because we don’t necessarily speak the same language, it would be easy to forego them and visit different stores, sites, or landmarks. I think we often see lists of famous bookshops, but this year I’ve managed to actually peek inside quite a few!
In September, I had the absolute pleasure of visiting Argentina and Uruguay with a friend. Needless to say, my Kindle was almost the first thing I packed. I’d never been to South America before so I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. I planned to read a little, but accidentally (as always) ended up reading quite a lot.
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When I first moved to London, I lived in this weird panacea, which only existed in my head. I thought the morning (and evening) Tube rushes were delightfully whimsical- and that the platforms full of shoving, sweaty Tube-dwellers were a modern transportation miracle.
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Note: Patrons for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child were asked to #KeeptheSecrets, and I’m a good Secret Keeper: there are no spoilers here. However, you may wish to avoid this article if you want to see or read the play with absolutely no background information.
In July 1999 my father read to me a small article in a national newspaper about a book called Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. He (a teacher) said kids in his school talked about it. I asked him if I could read it. He came home a while later with a hardback copy of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, which I chomped in a day. A few days later, we were in a local bookshop and a copy of Harry Potter and the Philsopher’s Stone was in the bargain bucket for £3.
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In 2001, Miraphora Mina and Eduardo Lima met on the set of Harry Potter and began a collaboration that would become iconic. The graphic design work in the Harry Potter world has brought visual joy to millions- think about the letter addressed to ‘Mr H Potter, The Cupboard Under the Stairs, 4 Privet Drive, Little Whinging, Surrey’, or the eclectic beauty of a box of Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans.
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As a child, I stumbled across a miracle book. There was a bright place in the woods where a giant tree stretched to the clouds, its branches hosting a plethora of whimsical residents. The magic spilled out of every page and I read, and re-read, and read it again. It was called The Enchanted Wood. I was 6 years old, I’d just found Enid Blyton, and the world exploded.
Arguably, the adventures of Jo, Bessie, and Fanny were my introduction to fantasy, a genre that I adore to this day. I had no idea, reading The Farway Tree series in 1996, that it had been written in the 1940s. The world was at war a second time, hardship was everyone’s neighbor, and Enid Blyton was producing stories that would, for generations, help young people imagine a better, brighter place.
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