Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

‘IN FINLAND, LIBRARIES ARE HOLY PLACES’

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‘IN FINLAND, LIBRARIES ARE HOLY PLACES’

It’s spring, and I am not thinking of Paris, or New York, or Barcelona. I am longing for Turku.

Turku is Finland’s southern port city, across the Baltic from Stockholm. The market is full of ingenious wooden utensils handcrafted in the archipelago. The drinking tents puff out the smell of fried onions and the voices of rowdy fisherfolk. And the library! That’s the most exciting address in town.

I was in Turku with a group of fellow scribes from the Canadian Journalism Fellowship program, run by Massey College at the University of Toronto. We had had the tour of Helsinki and we were about to take the ferry to Stockholm.

In between was Turku. The city’s new library was a magical place. Enormous and light-filled, bursting with beautiful Finnish design, massive colourful wall hangings, contemporary art in the windows. “In Finland,” our guide explained, “libraries are holy places.”

Amen.

The best part was the children’s section, where vitrines were actually set into the floor, housing tiny fairy tale vignettes of plants and animals. And naturally, this being Europe, the library had a sun drenched courtyard where you could have a beer. A beer! At the library!

I was reminded of Finland last week, when I met Patricia Dodge, an elfin Finn from the embassy, who organizes the Massey trip every year. Before our trip last spring, Patricia sent us a Wall Street Journal story about how Finnish kids trounce the rest of Europe in standardized tests. It’s a country that doesn’t believe in homework, where kids don’t go to school till age 7.

But they read.

The notion of a robust national readership of indigenous literature is undoubtedly more feasible in a tiny country with a language that no one else on the planet recognizes. But it isn’t that simple. Story is a potent force that wafts through all parts of the culture, right down to fashion and design.

Even Marimekko, the iconic brand much loved by Jackie O in the 1960s, has a new textile collection based on a thousand-year-old poem -- the KALEVALA, Finland’s national founding epic.

It’s full of bears and trolls and magical creatures, and it’s part of Marimekko’s efforts to be more “relevant” in the 21st century.

So maybe looking forward is really about looking back.

Go figure. Go, Finland!

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Sheree-Lee Olson

Sheree-Lee Olson is a Canadian novelist, poet and journalist. Her first novel, Sailor Girl, was published in 2008 by The Porcupine's Quill.

Go to Sheree-Lee Olson ’s Author Page