Books About Iceland
Iceland is not only a nature paradise; it is also a heaven for the bookworm! More books are written, published and sold per capita in Iceland than anywhere else in the world. In fact, one in every ten Icelanders will publish something in their lifetime! During the dark weeks leading up to Christmas we go a little extra crazy for our books with the yearly “jólabókaflóð” – literally “Christmas book flood” – when more books than ever are published and sold, and a very common Christmas present in Iceland is indeed a book.
Let me introduce you to some of the best-known Icelandic books and authors, as well as books about Iceland and Icelanders.
Of course, no list of books about Iceland would be complete without our famous Sagas, a great source of pride for us Icelanders. They say these are the oldest texts that can still be read by the native speakers as our language has changed so little over the centuries due to our isolation. The Sagas were written in the 13th-14th centuries by unknown authors/recorders and follow the lives of Icelanders during the centuries after settlement from around 800-1000 AD. These epic books have it all: tragic love stories, family dramas, stubborn pride, wild battles, heroic deeds and sometimes just pure drunken foolishness. Most Icelanders have read a few of the Sagas as during our school years we go through a handful, at first thinking them a bit “boring and old” but quickly realizing that they’re actually brilliant, rivalling the Greek tragedies and even the dramas of Shakespeare. Check out Brennu-Njálssaga (or “Njála” as it is usually referred to),Laxdæla saga, Egils saga and Grettis saga.
And continuing with our medieval classics we also have legend Snorri Sturluson who recorded Viking poetry and mythical tales in the classical tomes we call the Eddas, which we also study in school.
Halldór Laxness is our big literary icon and the other world-famous Icelandic literature export apart from the Sagas. Laxness is the only Icelander to have won the Nobel Prize, back in 1955. He wrote over 20 acclaimed books, as well as short stories, plays, poetry, essays, memoirs, and even tried out as a screenwriter in Hollywood back in the 1920s. Most of his books are available in English. I’d recommend Sjálfstættfólk (Independent People), Íslandsklukkan (Iceland’s Bell), Brekkukotsannáll (The Fish Can Sing), Heimsljós (World Light), Paradísarheimt (Paradise Reclaimed) and Atómstöðin (The Atom Station). Laxness passed away in 1998 and the home he had lived with his family for decades has been turned into an excellent museum situated in the beautiful nature area of Mosfellsdalur.
Other lauded and award-winning 20th century writers include GuðbergurBergsson (Svanurinn – The Swan), ÞórbergurÞórðarson(Steinarnir tala – The Stones Speak) and Thor Vilhjálmsson(Grámosinnglóir – Justice Undone). You will find works by these authors in most Icelandic homes and we study their books in school as well.
Moving into a more modern era, great works of literature abound.
One of our most celebrated writers today goes by the pen-name Sjón. Sjón is a poet as well as a novelist and frequently collaborates with Björk and has performed with the Sugarcubes. Some notable books by Sjón are Skugga-Baldur (The Blue Fox), Rökkurbýsnir (From the Mouth of the Whale) and Mánasteinn – drengurinnsemaldrei var til (Moonstone – The Boy Who Never Was). Sjónwas nominated for a Golden Globe for the song “I’ve Seen It All” from the award-winning film Dancer in the Dark, starring Björk.
HallgrímurHelgason is my personal favourite. A hipster long before the modern hipster era, Hallgrímur is never seen without his iconic hat and hangs out in the coolest bars in Reykjavík. In fact, his most famous book,101 Reykjavík, perfectly captures the Reykjavík nightlife of the 1990s, centring around our legendary bar Kaffibarinn. The filmitization of the book is brilliant as well, with music composed by loyal Kaffibarinn patron Damon Albarn of Blur fame.
Einar MárGuðmundsson is a household name in Iceland and has written a fantastic book called EnglarAlheimsins (Angels of the Universe) which one can say is the Icelandic One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The book won the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize and has been made into an excellent film featuring an all-star cast and directed by Oscar-nominated director FriðrikÞórFriðriksson.
AndriSnærMagnason is one of our most beloved writers today. His book LoveStar was critically acclaimed and was chosen book of the year in Iceland when released. Andri has also been one of many Icelandic celebrities who have openly criticized what has become a common practice in Iceland, namely draining rivers into enormous dams in order to power aluminium factories run by foreign business owners. His book Draumaland (Dreamland) is a great critique on the subject and won the Icelandic Literary Award. Dreamland has a foreword by Björk, another opponent of the industrialisation of Icelandic nature.
Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir is one of the most interesting writers today. Last year she won the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize for her bookÖr (Hotel Silence). Other recommended books by her areRigning í nóvember (Butterflies in November), Afleggjarinn (The Greenhouse) and Undantekningin (The Exception).
Like all the Nordic countries we also boast some excellent crime writers!
ArnaldurIndriðason is huge throughout Europe and has won both the Glass Key Award (a literature award given to Nordic crime writers) and the Gold Dagger Award given by the British Crime Writers’ Association. He has written over 20 books, most of them featuring detective Erlendur. Some of the best includeMýrin (Jar City), Grafarþögn (Silence of the Grave), Röddin (Voices), Kleifarvatn (The Draining Lake) and Vetrarborgin (Arctic Chill).Mýrin has been adapted for the screen by one of our finest film directors BaltasarKormákur and is a truly excellent film.
YrsaSigurðardóttiris our other blockbuster crime writer. Some recommendations include Þriðjatáknið (The Last Rituals), Brakið (The Silence of the Sea), Sogið (The Reckoning), Sérgrefurgröf (My Soul to Take) andÉg man þig (I Remember You).
If it’s non-fiction and books about Iceland you’re after, we’ve got you covered there too!
If you want to immerse yourself in Icelandic history before/during/after your visit to our country, check out The History of Iceland by Gunnar Karlsson, probably the best history book you can find on Iceland.
AldaSigmundsdóttir has written three great books about Iceland:
Iceland has been experiencing a tourist boom over the past years, so it comes as no surprise that a book has been devoted to the subject! The Little Book of Tourists in Iceland examines the reasons for the boom and the impact it has had on the country. Useful to check out before your visit for some dos and don’ts and some amusing tales of tourist misbehaviour!
The Little Book of the Icelanders is a collection of essays on the quirks and characteristics of the people of Iceland.
The Little Book of the Hidden People is a fantastic book on Icelandic folklore. It comes as a surprise to many foreigners that many Icelanders believe in elves and other “hidden creatures” and we even have a school devoted to the study of elves and hidden folk!
Gnarr! How I Became the Mayor of a Large City in Iceland and Changed the World
The biography of one of our most beloved comedians who founded his own party called The Best Party in 2009 to satirize the political system in the wake of the financial crash and was unexpectedly electedmayor of Reykjavík! Some of his campaign promises included having dinosaurs in public parks, free towels for all swimming pools, a drug-free parliament, and many more similarly whimsical pledges, and when putting together his coalition government he ruled out anybody who hadn’t seen all five seasons of The Wire! All of a sudden, a man who had been banned from entering the United States for prank-calling the White House one too many times in his popular radio show was having meetings with international leaders – and doing a damn fine job of it too!
Names for the Sea
Expat Sarah Moss arrived in Iceland during the turbulent times of the financial crash and the Eyjafjallajökull volcanic eruption. Her memoir is an interesting take on Icelandic society seen from the perspective of an outsider.
The Almost Nearly Perfect People
Journalist Michael Booth examines the Nordic nations with a humorous take and insightful statements on our traits and idiosyncrasies.
Australian writer Hannah Kent has written an excellent historical fiction book about a real-life murder and subsequent trial which took place in Iceland in the 1800s. The book tells the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, a servant in rural Iceland who was accused of murdering two men and was the last woman in Iceland to be executed.
In line with our book-loving nature we naturally have plenty of fantastic bookstores where you can stock up on books about Iceland! Many of them are even open late at night and have good cafés for lingering browsers. Check out our blog about bookstores here!