read it in books

I’M GRATEFUL NOW, when I think about it, that I was exposed to Estonia’s eldest generation when I came here years ago, through the mother of my children, whose older relatives were all still quite alive, and came to visit and be photographed with our eldest daughter when she was born. These were people who were born in the 1920s and whose entire youth was anchored in the prewar Estonian state, that time when AH Tammsaare was mass producing literature, not just Truth and Justice (1926-1933), but I Loved a German (1935), and The Misadventures of the New Satan (1939). It was the radio era, when books were treasured and families would sit around the fire on winter nights reading for pleasure, without any disruptive technologies.

My understanding is that books continued to be valued in the Soviet era, and that they were quite cheap. As such, though they needed special permission to visit the islands of their own country, the elder generation was still able to amass a trove of good books at minimal cost at that time, so that even though their options were limited in the physical world, mentally they enjoyed more freedom, and the walls of their homes were still overflowing with volumes when I came to visit them, old books everywhere.

The book age was all supposed to come to an end though with the digital era, and we were supposed to abandon paper books for glowing flat screens. Yet something strange happened. We continued to invest in and buy books.

As someone who is deeply involved in the creation of these products, I have to say I am mystified. Why do we still buy them? A visit to a bookstore in Estonia today can be overwhelming. Have we ever had such choices? Even the series of Minu books takes up several book cases. There is Estonian literature, and then foreign translations. But there is also a wonderful selection of English-language books (yes, I prefer to read in English) which was not available 10 or 15 years ago. Recently, I was given a gift card to a bookstore and spent a good hour perusing all of the new offerings because I couldn’t decide which books to take home. In the end, I bought two obscure Ernest Hemingway titles — Death in the Afternoon (1939) and To Have and Have Not (1937) — which are, 80 years after the radio era, still in print.

Books (and gift certificates for books) remain one of the most cherished gifts that Estonians give each other during the holidays. I used to think this was because people had limited imaginations, and couldn’t think of what to buy each other, and books seemed like a respectable gift, but others say it is because Estonians treasure books as they have for many decades in the past. They were the literate peasant people, they say, able to read since the Swedish monarchs established a system of schools many centuries ago. Yet I think one of the reasons books remain a popular gift, especially at Christmas, is just because they are wonderful items to share among people.

Books are paper and print, true, but, if they are well-written, and their authors have worked their special author magic, they are also filled with a substance — sisu, as the Estonians say — that is lacking in new ski boots, cinnamon-smelling candles, or loaves of gingerbread dough wrapped in plastic. Is there really a gift out there that measures up to a new, good book? I no longer have any doubts. If you come to my house, it’s starting to look like one of those old Estonian relatives’ places. The titles are stacked up on the shelves by my bed. Old books, new books, favorite books. I don’t even need to read them all. Just looking at all of those books makes me feel good.

This column appeared in the winter issue of Kõik Koos – Lõunakeskuse Ajakiri.

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