Iceland: A Nation of Readers. And Writers

In News by Dennis Abrams

"Fabulous Iceland" was the theme the country presented itself with as Guest of Honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2011

“Fabulous Iceland” was the theme the country presented itself with as Guest of Honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2011

By Dennis Abrams

Writing for BBC News Magazine, Rosie Goldsmith said it bluntly: “Iceland is experiencing a book boom. This island nation of just over 300,000 people has more writers, more books published and more books read, per head, than anywhere else in the world.”

There is, according to Goldsmith, a phrase in Icelandic,” ad ganga med bok I maganum,” which means that everyone gives birth to a book, or literally, that everyone “has a book in their stomach.” And this does indeed seem to actually be the case, at least in Iceland, as one in 10 Icelanders will publish a book in their lifetime.

And yes, that means the competition gets fierce. Goldsmith spoke to a young writer, Kristin Eirikskdottir who confirmed this, adding “Especially as I live with my mother and partner, who are also full-time writers. But we try to publish in alternate years so we don’t compete too much.”

Why Iceland? There are a several factors in play.

First, as Agla Magnusdottir, head of the new Icelandic Literature Center (which offers government support for literature and its translation) told Goldsmith, “Writers are respected here. They live well. Some even get a salary.”

And according to novelist Solvi Bjorn Siggurdsson, “We are a nation of storytellers. When it was dark and cold we had nothing else to do. Thanks to the poetic eddas and medieval sagas, we have always been surrounded by stories. After independence from Denmark in 1944, literature helped define our identity.”

Siggurdsson also pointed to Iceland’s first (and to date only) winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Halldor Laxness (As an aside, I’m a huge admirer of his best-known work, Independent People), whose books are sold in gas stations and tourist centers throughout the country. People name their cats after Laxness, and admirers make the pilgrimage to his home, which was opened to the public as a museum in 2004.

“When Laxness won the Nobel prize in 1965 he put modern Icelandic literature on the map,” Siggurdsson said. “He gave us confidence to write.”

But, as Goldsmith made clear, it was a combination of “ash and the crash” that also helped to put Iceland on the 21st century map.

First came the financial crisis, or “kreppa” of 2008. And then the infamous cloud of ash from one of Iceland’s numerous active volcanoes in 2010.

According to comic, painter and writer Hallgrimur Helgason, it was the financial crisis that “brought Icelanders down to earth.”

“It made us less complacent and gave artists a creative shot in the arm – as Thatcher did for Britain,” he said. “We address politics too – it’s not all about sagas.”

Indeed, as Magnusdottir said of Iceland’s community of authors, “They write everything — modern saga, poetry, children’s books, literary and erotic fiction — but the biggest boom is in crime writing.” (Goldsmith points out that indeed “crime novel sales figures are staggering — double that of any of its Nordic neighbors.”)

But there is also an audience eager for all those books being written. This time of year is known as the “jolabokaflod” or Christmas Book Flood, the time when most books are published. “Everyone” in the country gets books as Christmas presents. And “everyone” is looking for ideas for the people on their list.

“Even now, when I go to hairdressers,” said Kristin Vidarsdottir, manager of the Unesco City of Literature Project (Unesco has designated Reykjavik as a City of Literature), “they do not want celebrity gossip from me but recommendations for Christmas books.”

About the Author

Dennis Abrams

Dennis Abrams is a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives, responsible for news, children's publishing and media. He's also a restaurant critic, literary blogger, and the author of "The Play's The Thing," a complete YA guide to the plays of William Shakespeare published by Pentian, as well as more than 30 YA biographies and histories for Chelsea House publishers.