For TungliÃ°, how you publish is as important as what you publish. Named after the Icelandic word for the moon, the tiny publisher prints its books in batches of 69 on the night of a full moon. So far, so weird. But keen readers must also buy their books that same night, as the publisher burns all unsold copies. Weirder still.
Why? While most books can survive centuries or even millennia, TungliÃ° â€“ as its two employees tell me â€“ â€œuses all the energy of publishing to fully charge a few hours instead of spreading it out over centuries â€¦ For one glorious evening, the book and its author are fully alive. And then, the morning after, everyone can get on with their lives.â€
The masterminds are writer Dagur Hjartarson and artist Ragnar Helgi Ã“lafsson. Three years ago, the pair were discussing some promising manuscripts that they knew were languishing unpublished, and started to formulate a plan to make these books appear. But doing so, they decided, would also â€œhave to involve making them disappearâ€.
Precisely why the latter was necessary is hard to discern â€“ but nonetheless, TungliÃ° was born.
Hjartarson and Ã“lafsson asked to be quoted as a â€œdual entityâ€, joking that they must toe a â€œparty lineâ€. Jokes and not taking publishing too seriously seem integral to TungliÃ°. Asking about their anti-profit business model, I am corrected: â€œTungliÃ° is not a business, so there is no business model.â€
Is this all a satire, then, of publishing and capitalism in general? Not really; Ã“lafsson and Hjartarsonâ€™s â€œaim is not to make any point â€¦ We tend not to take the rules of the game too seriously so in that way, it might seem satirical.â€
One topic they do take (somewhat) seriously is the artistic nature of their book burnings. At their sole incineration outside Iceland â€“ in Basel, Switzerland â€“ they had a difficult time persuading the locals that this was â€œa poetic act, not a political oneâ€.
They assure me that they burn books â€œwith a lot of care and respect, using only first-grade French cognac to help to fuel the flamesâ€. They claim the burnings â€œhave nothing to do with history, censorship or politicsâ€. Instead, the procedure has to do with the politics of the book itself. Unsurprisingly, they describe their publishing list as â€œunconventionalâ€ â€“ books that are hard to classify. They want to keep these challenging books available, whether it be Icelandic poet Ã“skar Ãrni Ã“skarssonâ€™s Cuban Diary from 1983 or Ã“lafssonâ€™s own Letters from Bhutan. â€œThe printed book is a democratic object,â€ they argue, but one being â€œpushed to the marginsâ€ as some publishers are trying to save the book â€œby turning it into a luxury itemâ€; a desirable object prized for its commercial value rather than its contents.
But arenâ€™t TungliÃ°â€™s small print runs and book burnings undemocratic, because they limit who can access their books? â€œDemocratic,â€ they tell me, â€œdoesnâ€™t mean limitless abundance or unlimited supply â€“ but it should mean fair process.â€ Their books are cheap, cannot be pre-ordered and no one can jump the queue at their events â€“ fair, in other words. â€œEveryone is welcomed,â€ they stress â€“ but they do acknowledge that making their books scarce is fundamental to what they do.
â€œThis might look like a contradiction,â€ they continue. â€œIf so we are sorry, but not sorry. We just try to do what feels right, funny or beautiful, or preferably all three.â€
The core question still remains: why? â€œThereâ€™s a contradiction at the centre of things,â€ they tell me, â€œand so it is with TungliÃ°â€. They both love and hate that books â€œstrive for permanenceâ€, and how we attempt to â€œreconcile ourselves with impermanence by making permanent thingsâ€. Writing a book is, for some writers, a deluded attempt at immortality. TungliÃ° saves its authors from this delusion.
What it provides, they say, is a kind of liberation. â€œThe energy of the act of publishing is condensed and amplified. A lot of waiting, doubting and worrying, self-promotion and plugging is simply eliminated,â€ they say. This still doesnâ€™t quite explain TungliÃ° â€“ but if you donâ€™t get it, Hjartarson and Ã“lafsson arenâ€™t about to help. â€œWe try to stay true to a certain logic,â€ they say, â€œbut this is the logic of a poem, not of prose.â€ And itâ€™s hard to hold a poem to account.