Friday, December 30, 2022

Icelandic New Year

Blue Lagoon geothermal spa, Iceland
photo © copyright

A Story in LitHub last week was titled "Chocolate, Books, and More Books: Could America Even Handle Iceland's Traditional Christmas 'Book Flood'?" (Hinds). 

It describes how families and friends in "the most literate country in the world, with the highest number of published authors" exchange books every Christmas Eve, reading together around the fireplace to celebrate the holidays. The story recounts a "most dearly loved tradition" of a flood of publications annually released in the weeks leading up to Christmasalso stimulating author visits to workplaces for readings, bookshop festivities, or finding a reading nook at a family gathering, in addition to the evenings reading at home late into the night, fueled by hot chocolate.

Personally, this story revived memory of a New Year's celebration spent in Iceland. But how this came about is another story. In the late fall one year, when visiting friends in Arizona, an email arrived from another friend saying, " me crazy, but I'd really like to see the northern lights..." along with an invitation to join a group traveling to Iceland to welcome the New Year. Following soon was an additional emailjust a photo of folks sitting half-immersed in the geothermal Blue Lagoon on the Reykjavik Peninsula, with glasses raised in saluteresulting in swift acceptance of the invitation. 

The midwinter adventure commenced with a late night arrival at the airport near Reykjavik. Knowledge of my Aussie-origins, and consequent experience driving on the "correct" side of the road, automatically meant designation to drive the rental vehicleand fortunately another member of the group swiftly self-identified as navigator. Our first collaboration though was to retrieve the 8-seater vehicle from the far side of a deserted, unlit carparkin the pitch-black of true darknessto skate in our boots 100 yards / 90 meters or so, across the sheet of ice covering the carpark, helping each other to remain upright as we went.

Moving on from this uncertain start, the land of the midnight sun [during summer anyway] offered delight in winter too. Each morning, after breakfast in the dark, we coincided our arrival at a destination for sunrise around 11 am, to see a sight or two. Then, back on the road by sunset, around 3 pm, returning to our accommodations in time for drinks before dinner.

The good company of the group, coupled with the warmth of Icelanders, the stunning volcanic landscape and rushing streams, the warm springs and geysers, the expansion bridge across the separating tectonic plates, a welcome embellishment of the Sagas and history of Iceland, and a very different architecture and housing combined as an enjoyable mix of experiences–with the timelessly haunting novel, Independent People by Halldór Laxness, capturing the strength of a unique people, and some character of the nation.

The New Year's Eve celebrations were also enjoyable, with community bonfires and apparently endless fireworks in view in every direction from the hilltop location of a revolving restaurant atop The Saga Museum (apart from a 30 minute break just before midnight, when Icelanders nationwide stopped for an iconic TV show).

While the combination of smoke from the large-scale fireworks on New Year's Eve and cloud-filled skies on other evenings nullified any viewing of northern lights, this whole adventure remains among the most memorable of ways to welcome the fresh start to a calendar.

With a flood of goodwill as strong as this memory brings, may your 2023 travel as well!


Halldór Laxness (1946), Independent People, New York: Vintage

Jess deCourcy Hinds (2022), "Chocolate, Books, and More Books: Could America Even Handle Iceland's Traditional Christmas 'Book Flood'?" LitHub, December 23,  

Thursday, December 15, 2022

Bestest Words?

Words give shape to ideas and feelings. More truly, how we interpret words as readers and listeners helps to shape understanding, relationship, or action–in turn, helping to shape us. And with “truthiness” rather than truth-telling so common in public communications, how we interpret and use words matters a lot. As noted in my previous blogposts, we rely on each others words to “differentiate fact from opinion and the proven from the plausible” (Sayers, 1948, p. 4).


With truth-telling now needed more than ever, our ongoing effort to challenge disinformation, misinformation, and trash-talk is as necessary as reasserting values important to daily life. Perhaps it’s best to keep in mind that the strongest antidote to propaganda and its impact is our own independent thought. And keeping democracy requires that we read, listen, speak, write, and vote thoughtfully. Words used wisely can engage hope, humor, and leadership to counter propaganda and strengthen democracy.

Through the initial handling of the Covid pandemic in 2020 and a remarkable election in the United States, word-salad was so amplified at times that many days felt driven by a juggernaut heading toward ambiguous destinations. Health, safety, and freedoms previously taken for granted were continuously threatened. This was the setting, in May 2020, for starting to write these blogposts as personal reflections every couple of weeksto help keep perspective.


A midterm election in November 2022 delivered a much-wished-for coalition of voters, for some reprieve from the ongoing threats to health, safety, and freedoms. For any of us who believes in truth, law, and justice though, this remains a challenging time in this country and elsewhere. Outrageous public talk and too little action against the harmful actions of some still present hazard. Word-salad still props up news reports and talk-shows. 


A relatively few bright lights in the media have found ways to probe the news while continuously urging accountability. Very often it is investigative journalists who uncover the harmful actions of public figures. Probing commentaries in the media also argue for the rule of law and democratic institutions, but nonetheless offer little solution to the propaganda war. 


Many in the media continue to take the bait built into propaganda, to amplify its reach to more people than otherwise possible. From earlier parroting of bandwagon claims about “elites,” through the endless “B-roll” of political rallies, to the latest screams for the camera, this pseudo-news will not “just disappear.” An apparently endless stream of books, along with podcasts and documentaries, expose violations of truth, law, and justice, but even the best of these mostly offer diagnosis and warning.


Perhaps there is promise for the news media to regain credibility and audiences through the growth of “constructive journalism.” This rethinking of news practice steps beyond breaking news and investigative journalism to track public action for the common good. Constructive journalism builds on the premise that to serve democracy, quality reporting must be “critical, inspirational, nuanced, and engaging” (Constructive Institute, 2022). Meanwhile, the tabloid-based, sensational negativities of outrage, trash-talk, and exaggerations continue to be amplified by some public figures, social media, and gatekeepers of the mass media.


My thanks go to readers of the blog throughout the world, for your interest, comments, and feedback. In the spirit of Jacques Ellul's insight that propaganda ceases where simple dialogue begins, let's keep on seeking opportunities to advance the independent thought that strengthens democracy. With best wishes to all who choose the very best words to address the challenges ahead. 

& with warmest compliments of the Season!


Constructive Institute (2022), "What Is Constructive Journalism?"

Sayers, Dorothy L. (1948), The Lost Tools of Learning, London: Methuen