Literature: World’s Longest Book Table

Danielle Blackbird takes us through “Världens längsta bokbord” – the world’s longest book table – in Stockholm.

World's Longest Book Table - Photo by Danielle Blackbird

All photos by author

This is an annual phenomenon on the closing Sunday of Stockholm’s Kulturfest, a week of free, mostly open-air arts events just before the city’s major venues launch their autumn performance seasons. Kulturfest is the reason I love August in Stockholm. For two years now I have swooped down gleefully upon free opera and free theatre, but those who know me will be amazed to hear this year was my first trip to the bokbord. The reason is pure reverence: I knew it was something I could not do at all unless I could devote myself entirely to the experience.

Världens längsta bokbord stretches approximately eight blocks along the shopper’s thoroughfare Drottninggatan (“Queen Street”) in central Stockholm. Private booksellers of various stripes set out their wares: the majority of offerings are used books from 10 to 100 kronor, which, believe me, is stunningly cheap in Sweden.

This brings out a kind of feeding frenzy behavior in the buyers. Amateur bibliophiles are, as a rule, quiet, non-confrontational people; but there is a taut concentration in the air and a silent but unyielding determination to claim the gems first. The crowds are massive (think Madison Farmer’s Market in high season: a slow surge of bodies), and the only way an introvert like myself copes is to narrow my field of awareness to a single telescopic view of the book selection immediately before me.

I also mentally assure myself that the books I love will not interest anyone else and so will wait for me. Such assurances are blatant self-delusion, of course, as a bokbord will bring out the nerdy enthusiasts of obscure passions like nothing else in this world.

I am a joyful addict of used books, and I feed my addiction by store or sale event, as opportunity affords. Historically, the two ways I best soothe myself when agitated or blue are to take a long drive or to lose myself in a used book store. The first option is not available to me in Sweden (where we possess no car); the second is, thankfully, possible in a modified form, since most antikvariat carry a sizable selection of English books. I enjoy browsing Swedish books, too, but my range of appreciation is significantly limited.

World's Longest Book Table - Photo by Danielle BlackbirdThere is an art to book browsing, and my faculties are finely honed — in English, that is. I can scan a shelf and from a hundred tiny indicators focus in upon the spines which hold the most promise for me.

I can also attend to my own state of mind to determine what subjects might be most congenial on a particular day, how long I am likely to spend browsing, and whether I shall merely glance along the surface of the shelves or sink deeply in.

The best browsing tends to occur when I have a few titles or authors in mind which I would be specially pleased to find, but I have no absolute need for any specific item.

With no goal in mind at all, it is difficult to latch my attention firmly to the subject matter; with too peremptory a purpose, I cannot appreciate the unsuspected treasures along the way.

With Swedish books the situation is quite different. Although before leaving the States I ordered a hefty tome on the History of Swedish Literature (one of the few general surveys written in English), I have not digested it yet, and my familiarity with Swedish authors is scant.

My reading level is also far from sophisticated: I can contend with most newspaper articles, for gist if not for details, but is not the cliché of newspaper writing its sixth grade reading level?

Browsing Swedish books is enjoyable and instructive, but it does not deliver the dreamy relaxation of browsing English books. In fact, after two hours combing the bokbord, my brain was exhausted.

I did learn a certain amount by observation on Swedish reading tastes — some of this observation is cumulative from previous browsing sessions, but I became newly conscious of it.

Swedes apparently love mystery novels, including those by English authors (both in translation and in the original): I probably saw more Agatha Christie, P.D. James, and Elizabeth George than any other authorial group. Of Swedish authors I noticed many volumes by Viktor Rydberg, though whether we are to conclude that Rydberg is the most popular to read, or just the most popular to get rid of, is uncertain.

Although I have been reading the Harry Potter series in Swedish for fun practice (on the advice of an ESL teacher who told me to start by reading something I was already familiar with), I generally have a strong aversion to reading English books translated into Swedish. If I care enough to want to read the book, I want to experience it in its original.

Twice on the bokbord I came across Julian Barnes’ Arthur and George, which I am very interested to read, but found it was the Swedish translation. I considered buying it anyway, for a practice novel, but I couldn’t bear it: so “English” a story, I want to savor every nuance of the language. Also, I feel that in my Swedish reading I should be getting to know Swedish authors.

August Strindberg, “Landscape Study, 1905″The trouble is finding Swedish authors beyond the children’s shelf (where I’ll happily romp with Astrid Lindgren or Tove Jansson) whom I wish to read! I am a preternaturally sensitive reader: I abhor violence and have not much stomach for the dark or hopeless — the bread and butter of modern Swedish literature.

I realize this is a severe handicap in an aspiring woman of letters, but that is a mountain to scale at another time.

For example, I am familiar with that maniacal misogynist Strindberg from my years of theatre, but I could never stand him in English, so I am wary of approaching him in his homeland — though I did see a painting of Strindberg’s at Thielska Galleriet which moved me and gave me hope for understanding him one day.

The bokbord was a deeply fulfilling bibliophilic experience, one I now intend to repeat annually. It is difficult to give more than a glancing indication of the state of suspended peace mingled with euphoria which a good long book browse induces.

Those susceptible to this particular pleasure will recognize it immediately; those who do not partake will scarcely comprehend more by telling. In the end I brought home seven books for a total cost of less than 200 kronor — four in English and three in Swedish.

My special trophy is the Quiller-Couch Oxford Book of English Verse, the 1939 edition (albeit in a ’49 reprint), bound in lambskin and printed on Oxford India Paper.

I can’t leave off rubbing it against my cheek. I’ve had my eye out for a handsome volume of the Q collection for some years — it’s surprisingly hard to come by if one’s search is limited to physical discovery and eschews the Internet.

To have found this beautiful copy — not even the standard Oxford anthology blue but a faded burgundy — in Stockholm for less than the price of bottled water, fills me with awe at the unexpected turns my life has taken.

Author: Danielle Blackbird

Danielle Blackbird is a theatre artist and woman-of-letters currently making her home in Stockholm. With equal passions for history, language, and the arts, Danielle is constantly exploring ways to create great art informed by scholarship and great scholarship informed by art. Favorite Swedish places include Drottningholm Slottsteater, Carolina Rediviva library in Uppsala, and the Medieval ruins of Sigtuna and Visby. You can read Danielle's occasional musings on her blog.

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