World Book Day

The crazies are out there.
They’re not who you usually think of. They’re not the guy talking to himself as he walks down the street. The poor woman who is sitting against a stone building with a cap open hoping you’ll give her some change. They’re not the people at the coffee shop who are out for a few hours from the local mental hospital. They’re not the guy who can’t stop moving, his feet going up and down to some invisible music while he holds out pages of paper on which are poems he has written. They’re not even the guy who thought his mother was a space alien and stabbed her.
Nope. Nope. The real crazies are the book burners. They wear suits, white shirts, their wives dress in conservative dresses, their hair is neatly trimmed. They are clothed in self-righteousness.
I know about them from personal experience. My novel, Gentle Sinners, was taught in a Winnipeg high school. The parents of one of the students violently objected. Not only that but they raised up the wrath of their congregation and campaigned against the book for two years. Yes, a lot of craziness comes from people who claim a religious text as the authority for their craziness. Even craziness needs justification. In some places it is, “I’m going to blow this airplane and three hundred people to simithereens by setting off explosives in my shorts, underwear, hat, shoes because God, whatever  his name, wants me to.”  “I’m going to ban, burn your book because God wants me to.” “I’m going to ________ because God wants me to.” 
God wants me to. Great line. A personal app to God. It used to be, “Long distance, operator, I want God.” Now, no need to call the operator. Wifi does the job direct.Some people don´t even need a phone.
If it’s not a personal wifi line, then it’s an interpretation of some selected lines from a religious text by someone who knows zilch about religion, the history of religion, the theory of religion. In a book the size of most religious tomes, you can find justification for just about anything. Including burning books.
Did Christ burn books? No, but that’s only because there were no books to burn. He did drive the moneylenders out of the temple and pictures of the temple sort of look like library buildings I have known so maybe he was driving readers out of the library. Could be.
You think this is crazy? Hey, Gentle Sinners was accused of leading kids to suicide. I was in league with the devil. I insulted religion. The real sin of Gentle Sinners is that it made fun of fundamentalist nitwits who were narrow-mindeded and ignorant. Particularly, it made fun of some fundamentalist preachers for their lack of Christian charity.Here I am, Lutheran, small c conservative, a believer who writes books with titles like Gentle Sinners, God Is Not A Fish Inspector in league with the devil. That makes it worse, don’tchaknow? A traitor. Not willing to tie authors to a stake, pile their books around their feet, soak them in gasoline and set them alight. Preaching that people should be free to read whatever they want.
I was invited to libraries to speak about books and attempts to censor books. That was because the campaign to get my novel kicked out of the school system went national. That’s when I discovered the crazies. Like the person who wanted to ban Treasure Island because it promoted homosexuality. In those days, the term gay hadn’t been invented. How did Treasure Island promote homosexuality, you may ask? Well, as the potential banner said, what do you think was going on in a ship with all those men and a cabin boy? Another wanted TI banned because it created a bad image for handicapped people. Yup, Long John Silver had a wooden leg and he was a bad guy. Someone else wanted Robin Hood banned because it promoted communism. Steal from the rich and give to the poor.Someone will, I’m sure, want to ban Sigrun Davidsdóttirs new book, Samhengi hlutana, because it exposes corruption leading up to the Kreppa. In Russia during the rule of Stalin, they didn´t bother banning books. They just shot the author.
You see, all the nut cases aren’t religious. Many of them are secular. Being a bit deranged isn’t the exclusive preserve of the young man who objected mightily to the title of my book of stories, God Is Not A Fish Inspector. He wanted me to kneel right there in the shopping mall where I was reading from it so that we could pray for the salvation of my soul. Hadn’t read the book and, if he had, probably wouldn’t have been able to understand it.
We’re lucky, folks. We come from a culture, whatever its short comings, that values books. We have a long history of publishing books. We have a history of literacy that visitors to Iceland regularly commented on. The tradition continues. Iceland produces more books per capita than any place in the world. They have 170 publishers and publish more than 1,500 books a year. Iceland’s population is the size of Victoria´s.    
They publish, buy and read this many books with a population of just over 300,000 people. Imagine Victoria producing 1,500 books a year.
In Iceland, fishermen write books, farmers write books, housewives write books, teachers write books, entertainers write books, clerks write books. They also read them. 
Someone standing on a street corner of Reykjavik with a sign saying ban every book I don’t agree with, would be known to be hopelessly insane. In North America they probably would be the leader of a sect or even a political party. They might even be the mayor of a major Canadian city.
The Icelandic Publishers Association, Félag islenska bökaútgefenda was founded in 1889. Incredible! 1889. A country that was reeling from harsh economic conditions, that was losing people to a major out-migration and here was an organization being formed whose purpose was to build a professional network of booksellers across the entire country.
It’s not surprising that a publishing organization should be formed in a country where in 1835, John Barrow could say that although the minster of Gardé was so poor that he didn´t have proper clothes for his position   “this poor man had a considerable collection of books, and among others, translations of some of the works of Pope and Young’s Night Thoughts!”
John Coles in 1882 said “we stopped to change horses and get our mid-day meal of skyr, coffee, and black bread. In the room where we were sitting I noticed a book shelf, and being curious to know the kind of literature which found favour with the small farmer of this country, I took the book down, when to my astonishment, I found it to be a Danish edition of Lockyer’s ‘Solar Physics.’ Our host, and elderly man, who had just come in from his work, was good enough to show me some other books in his small collection, amongst which were some of the works of Darwin and Lardner; he had also a Virgil. They had evidently been well used”.

Today is World book day. It is organized by UNESCO to promote reading, publishing and copyright. It was first celebrated in 1995. It’s nice to see that the world is catching up to Iceland.

Celebrate World Book Day by going out and buying a book. Be defiant. I’d say go out and buy my books but there’s only one book still in print, What The Bear Said: Folktales from Lake Winnipeg. I doubt if there are many left in stores. The print run is pretty well sold out. That’s what it’s like to be a member of the Icelandic North American community. They buy books. So, buy someone else’s book. Buy a book unlike what you usually buy. Buy a book on growing potatoes, bird watching, espionage, 18th C watercolors, Canadian artists, Laxness, Icelandic turf houses. Buy non-fiction, buy fiction.
Read them for the enjoyment but, more than that, read them defiantly, read them as your act for sanity against insanity, for knowledge against ignorance, for tolerance against intolerance, for freedom against dictatorship. 
Read them because you are proud of your heritage.

Literate? Think so?

I’m illiterate.
That would make me feel really bad except that I know that you are illiterate. Misery loves company.
What’s that you say? You aren’t illiterate. Of course, you are.
The first time I realized I was illiterate was when I went to Iceland.  I was taken to a language party. The group met on a regular basis. I came in, was introduced to everyone, everyone spoke to me in English, then someone said, “Danish.” Everyone started speaking Danish. Then someone said “German.” And they all started speaking German.
They went through a number of languages before, to my great relief, they worked their way back to English.
What brought back this memory was that on my mother’s last night at the nursing home, I met Josie. At ninety, she can still move furniture. She spoke to me in Icelandic and I had to admit I was illiterate in Icelandic. “Ekki,” I said. 
That ekki really is ekki. Once, in desperation, at six a.m. in the pouring rain in Rejkavik, I managed to make a caretaker understand that I had the use of an apartment and I wanted him to let me in. I dredged up forgotten words from childhood. God knows what he heard.
Every-so-often this happens to me. I’m going along in a kind of unilingual haze, thinking I’m literate and then someone says something in another language or about another language. This happened when I was editor of Logberg-Heimskringla. Nelson wrote to point out that we’d spelled an Icelandic word incorrectly.
I had to write back and tell him that I’m illiterate in Icelandic.
I’m also illiterate in Norwegian, Danish, Dutch, Spanish, German and Finnish. I’m not just illiterate in Finnish. Confronted with it, my IQ drops to zero. Have you been to Finland? Have you tried to read their signs? They’re in Swedish and Finnish. Thank goodness I can make a guess at the Swedish. But Finnish makes me go back to grade one and the bottom of the class.
Of course, I also realized I was illiterate when I was in Russia. I knew vodka, sputnik and tsar. Try sidling up to an attractive woman in a bar and whispering those words in her ear. They didn’t make me literate. I could print out my name in Russian but with three words and my name, I wasn’t going to read Tolstoy in the original. I wasn’t going to have an intense discussion on the meaning of life. Or order a meal.
After realizing that I was illiterate when I was in various locations, I realized that literacy is determined by geography. It’s not a general state of being. I always thought I was literate because I could read, write and speak English. That didn’t help in Ukraine or Cuba..
If I were smarter, I’d have realized this principle when I was a teenager. A NATO pilot who only spoke French came into the Gimli bakery. He couldn’t make himself understood. Finally, I and a friend who’d taken some basic lessons in French managed to make out that he wanted six tarts. 
There were lessons there about the importance of being literate in many languages but I missed them. I was too focused on skating, girls, pool, girls, hockey, girls. If the girls had said that they wouldn’t go out with us unless with could talk to them in Polish, German, Ukrainian, Icelandic, English instead of grunting, it would have improved our educations immensely.
Most of the time, being illiterate in another language doesn’t matter, even when we are abroad, because we nearly always can find someone who is literate in English.
However, there can be problems in countries where the language is ostensibly English. When I first moved to the United States, we stopped at a restaurant in South Dakota. Not South Carolina. Just across the border from Manitoba. It still felt like home. I asked for a nip and chips. The waitress looked at my oddly and I realized she didn’t understand me.
“Hamburger,” I said.
She nodded, went away and brought back a bag of potato chips. “French fries,” I said. She gave me a wary smile. This was when the Cold War with Russia was still on. I was hoping she wasn’t going to call the FBI. That’s how they catch spies, at least in some movies. The spies can speak English but it’s not idiomatic.
Of course there was the screaming hilarity when we were teenagers and heard an English pilot say that he’d met a very nice local girl and he was going to knock her up.
We get so comfortable in the smallness of our local language that it is easy to forget that in most places, we’re illiterate. When I briefly took over as editor at Logberg-Heimskringla, my lack of literacy in Icelandic came roaring back like a tidal wave, like a raging forest fire, like a meteor shower.
Vinarterta and skyr do not a vocabulary make. Knowing a few scattered words did not help me catch the error in sumardúðir which should have been sumarbúðir.
There are, however, all sorts of people around Winnipeg and among the readers of LH who are literate in Icelandic. They are nearly all women. That´s partly because a lot of the older men have died. Some people say men die off first because they are constitutionally inferior to women. I say men are simply more adventurous, always rushing off ahead, looking for new frontiers. They just can’t help it. It’s the testosterone.
That´s not the whole explanation, though. Do you remember spelling competitions in grade school? The teachers called them spelling bees. I called them humiliate and torture the boys. One half of the class stood on one side of the room and the other half on the other side of the room. The teacher gave you a word. She didn’t even have the decency to whisper it in your ear. She said it out loud. If you spelled it wrong, you had to sit down. I never got sore feet from standing. The last person standing was the person who won the competition. The last person was always a girl.
If the teacher were a sadist, she’d put the boys on one side and the girls on the other. Then the slaughter would begin. It was like machine gunning the boys with double syllable words. Cat, hat, dog, and house were okay but the girls could spell words like Mississippi. It wasn’t fair. They sang that word out when they jumped rope. The problem with girls is that they did their homework and read the dictionary.
If the teacher said to one of the boys, “Why don’t you look up how to spell words in the dictionary?”, the boy would look puzzled and say, “Dictionary?”
For a long time I was illiterate in English. Comic books and newspaper comics and the Hardy Boys and Robin Hood got me over that. I got tired of waiting and hoping that someone would read me the coloured comics on Saturday mornings. I wanted to know what Tarzan was saying to the animals. 
It’s too bad there hadn’t been comic books in Icelandic. I’d have done whatever was necessary to learn to read them. I’d probably have learned Finnish if it meant being able to read comic books. And The Black Arrow and Robinson Crusoe.
That would have still left me illiterate in a lot of languages. My friend Valerie’s father was the only person I’ve ever known who was a polyglot. I think he knew sixteen languages. He could listen to German, say, and send it out as Morse code in English. He knew Swahili. He used to call me Bwana Makuba. Big chief. At least that’s what he said it meant. You never know, do you?
If I had to do it again, I’d do like those Icelandic farmers I keep reading about who taught themselves Danish, German, Latin, English during the long winter evenings. Most of them seem to have done it by reading the Bible. I’d probably choose something a little more light hearted but it would be pretty nice to travel and talk to people in their own language. Makes the argument I hear in Canada about how if a child learns more than one language it’ll fill up his brain and won’t leave room for him to learn to play computer games pretty lame.
 (This is why you should give some books to the kids in your family for Christmas. Books they want to read.)


When I got my first invitation to give a reading, I was terribly flattered. It’s not surprising. After all, I’d laboured in obscurity, if not the butt of my acquaintance’s derision, then the unwilling recipient of their pity. Invitations to read were a sign of acceptance, of success. The idea that someone would actually pay for me to get on an airplane and fly somewhere and then listen to me read my stories and, maybe, actually buy books, was astounding. I had fantasies of a wild life. I wasn’t sure what the wildness would actually consist of but I had seen TV reports of  adoring fans screaming in ecstasy when Elvis descended from a plane, heard stories of beautiful women bribing the bell hop for the number to his room, had seen mobs of teenagers beside themselves with joy when he touched the string of his guitar.
My first reading was in a town with one grain elevator, a church, a Co-op, and a curling rink. Remember that curling rink.
I got up at 5:00 a.m. I left the house at 5:30. I arrived at the airport at 6:00. I left Victoria at 6:50. I waited in the Vancouver airport until 9:30. I flew to Calgary and then to Regina. I ate a sandwich and a salad made of cabbage and carrots with three raisins in it. I caught a bus and rode to my destination, where a tall, thin woman in a large fur coat led me to her car. She said her name was Verna and she couldn’t stay to chat because they had the vet coming to look at a sick heifer. She dropped me off at the local motel. The local motel had a fine view of the grain elevator. There were the railway tracks, drifting snow, a snow fence that was propped up with pieces of two by four and a sun that was just starting to set. At five o’clock I had the peroghi special in the motel dining room. At seven, a woman who also was wearing a very large coat with a hood, a woolen cap and frosted glasses, and introduced herself as Agnes carried me away in her Ford station wagon.
“Brush the hay off the seat,” she said, “we’ve been using the wagon to haul bales the last few days.”
The library was decorated with Santa Clauses and angels, some paper snowflakes, and crepe paper. It was quite cheery. There were three kinds of cookies and a plate of dainty sandwiches. Coffee was perking in an urn. There were thirty-three chairs set up in a semi-circle and my book was prominently displayed on a small table facing the audience. The audience was made up of an elderly woman who was still wearing her fur coat.
“This is my mother,” Agnes said.
We shook hands.
People should be arriving soon, Verna said, going to the window. Like the motel, the library faced the grain elevator. In the dark, you could just make it out against the horizon. A prairie icon. As she watched headlights appeared from the west, then turned down the road toward us. We all leaned forward in anticipation. The car drove slowed, looked like it was going to pull in, then drove past. We all went back to the urn.
“People are working late,” Agnes said, helping herself to a cookie. “Why don’t you have another cup of coffee while we wait.”
Three cups later, Agnes’s mother said, “I think I’ll go and see what’s happened to Jeb. He said he was coming.”
She shrugged her coat into place, did up the buttons and disappeared in a cold blast of air.
“Jeb’s her boyfriend since my Dad died,” Agnes said. “They’re having an affair.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“It’s nothing,” she said. “We’re pretty liberal out here nowadays.”
“Your Dad dying, I meant.”
“Oh, that was twenty years ago. Cow kicked him. He should have known better. Everyone knew that cow kicked if you came up on  her left side.”
We drank another cup of coffee and I went to the bathroom. When I came out, Agnes was gone.
“What happened?” I asked.
“She’s gone looking for her mother. She’s worried she might have slipped and fallen. It’s terribly icy out.”
There were ninety-five cookies and forty-five sandwiches and nine-tenths of an urn of coffee left.
All at once, Verna said in an exasperated voice, “It’s that damn bonspeil. They all promised they were coming but they’re over at the rink. Nothing matters in this town except curling. Throwing a bunch of rocks down the ice.” She said it angrily, as it was something had stuck in her craw for a long time. “My husband’s there. You know what’ll he say when he gets home. He forgot. How can he forget. This has been planned for two months.”
She went to the stacks and took down a book. I thought she might open it. Instead, she clenched it in both hands, held it against her breast for a long time, then put it back.
“That’s all right,” I said, “I’ll read to you.” And I did. For an hour. Just her and me and the coffee urn. I read three stories and she listened and when I finished, she gave me three dozen chocolate chip cookies to take back to the motel with me.
When I got back to Victoria, one of my colleagues said, “Had a wild time while you were away?” and winked.  “Get lots?”
“I guess,” I said. I wasn’t sharing the cookies with him or anybody else.