The importance of literature and books in Iceland cannot be overstated. With one in ten Icelanders publishing a book in their lifetime, reading and writing are interwoven into the threads of society. And when the inhabitants of this small Nordic island aren’t reading books writing them, they are giving them as gifts. Christmas, birthdays, and other special occasions are the perfect time to give both and receive fiction and non-fiction works.
So why are Icelanders so literary? And how does our love of all things written show up in our culture? Put on your reading glasses and let’s dive into books in Iceland and their place in society.
Why is Iceland so Literary?
Maybe it’s because we spend so much time inside due to the weather. Or perhaps it comes from a strong literary tradition we inherited from the Sagas and tales of Vikings. Iceland is the third most literate country in the world after Finland and Norway, other countries where people are cooped up much during of the year. Whatever the reason, Iceland is a great place to be a book lover. It’s no surprise that Reykjavik was designated as a UNESCO City of Literature in 2011.
Iceland’s Book Publishing Habit
Something that surprises many people about Iceland is that one in ten people will publish a book at some time in their life. While our numbers are small (just under 340,000 citizens), this is still an astonishing percentage of the population. In Iceland, everyone is either a writer, knows a writer, or is related to a writer. And many times we have some sort of personal writing project going on as well. Whether it’s poetry, a short story or an entire novel, the subject of literature is a favorite topic among Icelanders. Ask an Icelander their favorite book and you’ll have a great ice breaker and conversation starter.
The Icelandic Sagas
The famous little book of the Icelanders in the old days is one that you may have heard about. It details the early history and genealogy of Iceland, reaching back into the 9th, 10th, and early 11th centuries. The stories told in the Sagas are prose narratives which mostly recount tales of historical events. Some famous stories include the Saga of Erik the Red, which details the journey of Leif Erikson to Vinland (Newfoundland). This trip to North America took place long before the voyages of Christoper Columbus or Amerigo Vespucci.
These are the best-known examples of Icelandic literature. They were written in Old Norse (the language of the Vikings. And here’s a fun little fact: Because Iceland was so isolated from the rest of the world, modern Icelandic hasn’t changed much from the Old Norse of our Viking ancestors. This means that we can read the texts in their original language. Pretty cool, right?
Reykjavík International Literary Festival
Of course, in a country so obsessed with books and writers, it’s no surprise that we host a literary festival. The Icelandic book festival takes place every two years and is held in different venues around downtown Reykjavik. Highlights include author meet and greets, readingS from popular works, book workshops and seminars, and even a Literary Ball. Hobnob with your favorite authors while discovering some new books to check out.
Literature enthusiasts have been enjoying this biannual festival since 1985 and the tradition keeps going strong. The entertaining program features novelists, Nobel-prize winners, philosophers, illustrators, historians, and even a few political activists. As one of Europe’s most important literary festivals, it spans several days and is a must-do for lovers of literature. And as a bonus, admission to all events is free and everything is in English. What could be better?
Jólabókaflóð: The Christmas Tradition of Giving Books
In Iceland, books are exchanged on Christmas Eve. It’s a lovely tradition and one that is not surprising in a country filled with bookworms. You carefully hand-select a book that you think your loved one will enjoy and gift it to them. After opening their present, you spend the evening reading and devouring the stories and tales inside. It’s so nice to be warm and cozy inside the house during wintertime snuggled up with a good book.
This is known as Jólabókaflóð, which roughly translates to “Christmas book flood”. Retailers gear up for Christmas shoppers in search of that perfect book. During the year, 93% of Icelanders read at least one book. Maybe they read the title they pick up on Christmas Eve cover to cover?
Books in Iceland
Whenever you visit a new country, understanding the local culture is part of the fun. Now when you’re browsing in a book shop like Mál og Menning on Laugavegur street, you’ll appreciate just what these tomes mean to us Icelanders. And maybe you can even pick up a title of some famous Icelandic books in English. It’s a great souvenir and one you can treasure for many years to come.
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