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Read Your Way Through Helsinki

Finns like to read: it’s theirs favorite thing to do in their spare time. The country is slightly smaller than Montana, but it is library network is extensive, with hundreds of central, branch, and mobile libraries.

I was two years old when my family, forced to flee the Yugoslav wars, found shelter in Finland. We settled in Porvoo, a small town of about 50,000 inhabitants, about an hour’s drive from the capital Helsinki. Picturesque and popular with tourists, Porvoo is a medieval town known for its old buildings, wooden houses and 15th-century cathedral.

One thing it didn’t have were books in my family’s language – my first language, Albanian. I can’t say I was ever encouraged to pick up a book. We didn’t in my family. But once I learned to read Finnish, I never stopped and became both an oddball in our household and a frequent appearance in the small school library.

I was 10 years old when the new Porvoo main library building opened its doors to the public. When I first got there I was so impressed I cried. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen: endless shelves with tens of thousands of books, records, films, magazines and newspapers. And the best thing was that everything was free. I didn’t understand how that was possible. All these books, these worlds, this information — for free? Really?

However, I rarely borrowed a book, and when I did, I hid it. To this day I don’t know exactly why that was – why it somehow felt wrong and scary to bring books home. Maybe I wanted to keep books to myself, kind of a secret. Or maybe I was just afraid something would happen to the books if they were somewhere they didn’t belong. But unlike the real world, books never upset me — even crime, horror, and thriller titles — and I read everything. I picked up a book from the shelf, sat down at a table, read, then put the book back in its place, and continued where I left off the next day.

The war in Kosovo in the 1990s made our family home quite anxious, so I spent as much time as possible in the new library – in love with books and stories and the Finnish language; gain self-confidence as a speaker and as a child of immigrant parents; and dreaming of writing his own book one day, slowly growing from a reader to a writer.

If, or when, you visit Helsinki, one of the first things to do is to spend a day visiting two beautiful libraries.

The first is Oodi, Helsinki’s new central library – a stunningly beautiful building that combines spruce and glass, inspired by the beautiful nature of Finland. It opened in late 2018 and in 2019 the International Federation of Library Associations named it the best public library of the year. From the third floor, completely reserved for books, you can enjoy a breathtaking view from a large terrace. Alternatively, you can attend events, see a movie or have coffee or lunch on the ground floor. Oh yes, and on the second floor you can book a workspace, play video games with your friends and use a sewing machine, or even a 3D printer. All free.

The second place is the National Library of Finland, the oldest in the country, designed by the famous German architect Carl Ludvig Engel. The temple-like building itself is spectacular, encompassing several classical styles, and the vast collection encompasses Finland’s entire printed national heritage.

To better understand the history of the country, would I recommend a classic?: Unknown Soldiers by Väinö Linna. Originally published in 1954, it follows the events of the Second Soviet-Finnish War during World War II, from the perspective of men at the front. Finland fought alongside Germany against the Soviet Union, a fact often omitted from the history books.

Recently, however, there has been a spate of novels that offer insight into the relations between Finland and Germany during the war, such as The Colonel’s Wife by Rosa Liksom.

The women I think about at night by Mia Kankimäki. A middle-aged woman working at a Finnish publishing house decides to quit her job, leave everything behind and follow in the footsteps of women around the world who have meant a lot to her. I recommend listening to this book, even if it is mostly set outside of Finland, because there is something very honest and direct about Kankimäki’s way of looking at the world – and Finns are known for their honesty and directness!

I would say Antti Tuomainen. His books are hilarious and he just keeps getting funnier. They do a hollywood movie from one of his recent novels, “The Rabbit Factor”, in which a rather neurotic insurance mathematician inherits an adventure park. Things quickly take a bad turn – and for the absurd – as the main character is faced with problems and events that cannot be calculated, unlike everything else in his life.

purify by Sofi Oksanen, is one of my all-time favorite books – a heartbreaking exploration of betrayal and life in Estonia under Soviet rule.

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson, is another favorite. A grandmother and her granddaughter spend a summer together on an island, mostly talking about life. This book is a true gem: a gentle giant and a quiet, powerful, enchanting read that will leave you staring at a blank wall for a while after reading it.

Troll: a love story by Johanna Sinisalo, is a celebration of the imagination – a quirky and idiosyncratic read for those who love something out of the ordinary. The protagonist, a young photographer in his thirties, finds an injured troll (from Scandinavian mythology) outside his apartment building and decides to give him shelter.

  • “Unknown Soldiers”, Vaino Linna

  • “The Colonel’s Wife,” Rosa Liksom

  • “The women I think about at night”, Mia Kankimäki

  • “The Rabbit Factor”, Antti Tuomainen

  • “purify,” Sofi Oksanen

  • “The Summer Book” Tove Jansso

  • “Troll: A Love Story,” Johanna Sinisaloc

Pajtim Statovci, a Finnish author born in Kosovo to Albanian parents, has published three novels: “My Cat Yugoslavia”; “Intersection”, that was a National Book Award Finalist; and ‘Bolla’, which won Finland’s highest literary award, the Finlandia Prize, and was a finalist for the Kirkus Prize for Fiction in 2021.