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Norway: A publisher’s paradise

  |   Books

Norway is not just one of the world’s wealthiest countries, it is also the world’s happiest (yes, it is ranked higher than Bhutan in the Global Happiness Index!). It is also the home of Edward Munch and his iconic painting Scream, which was the most expensive piece of art ever sold at an auction — it went for $120 million. What people don’t know about Norway, however, is that it is a writers’ and publishers’ paradise. It also initiated one of the most innovative projects in the publishing industry — Future Library.

Started by Scottish artist Katie Paterson in 2014, the project would result in a collection of 100 books, printed 100 years in the future, in 2114, with paper from trees out of a newly planted forest in Norway. Every year, until 2114, the Future Library Trust will pick a new author to contribute a manuscript. The day I met one of the trustees, they had just selected (and not yet publicly announced) the fourth author Elif Shafak — the first three were Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell and Sjon.

There are many reasons why Norway is a publishing haven. It has a 100 per cent literacy rate, free public universities, and above all, an Arts Council that purchases 1,000 copies of every Norwegian title for distribution to libraries. The government has also exempted books from Value Added Tax (VAT) and banned deep discounting of new books, thus protecting booksellers from online competition.

During my short stay in Oslo for the Wisdom Together Conference, I managed a quick visit to the bookstore Eldorado, which opened in 2003 and is located on the site of the former Eldorado cinema. The large store has a great range of Norwegian and international titles and an extensive English-language section. Unusually, publishing companies rent space for their books in the store, allowing Eldorado to retain overall control.

When it comes to books on Munch, The Rescue Artist by Edward Dolnick is an entertaining account of Charley Hill, the world’s greatest art detective, and his search for Scream after it was stolen from the National Gallery in Oslo. The graphic novel and part biography Munch by Steffen Kverneland explores the artist’s relationships and obsessions.

Norway has produced a trio of celebrated authors who have received the Nobel Prize for Literature: Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, Knut Hamsun and Sigrid Undset. Bjørnson’s name is synonymous with 19th century Norwegian literature and his poem, Ja, vi elsker dette landet, is also known as Norway’s national anthem. Knut Hamsun is regarded as the principal leader of Norway’s Neo-Romantic revolution; its notions are articulated in his novels Hunger and Pan.

My personal favourite is Sigrid Undset, considered the godmother of Norwegian literature. Raised on her country’s profound traditions of folklore and cultural mythology, Undset’s fictional narratives are greatly influenced by the framework of national pride and identity. Her critically acclaimed trilogy, Kristin Lavransdatter (The Wreath, Wife, The Cross), published from 1920 to 1922, is a 1,200-page saga that chronicles the spiritual enlightenment and intellectual evolution of a woman from birth to death. The book supposedly inspired parts of Gone with the Wind.

The latest sensation from Norway is Karl Ove Knausgaard. His six-volume critically acclaimed My Struggle has brought him not only great financial success but bitter blowback from his family and friends. I have personally enjoyed Autumn which is written in the form of letters to his unborn daughter.

Odd, isn’t it, that some of the greatest literary works come from a country whose population is half that of Bengaluru and does not speak English?

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