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The Land Of Ice, Fire, And Literature

Iceland’s population is less than half a million people, but they publish almost as many books as the U.K.


Iceland provides grants and government assistance to creatives and offers retreats for international writers.

Every morning at 8 a.m., Halldór Laxness, a 20th-century Icelandic writer, ventured into the woods around his home in the valley of Mosfellsdalur, 20 kilometers away from the capital, Reykjavík.

For six hours at a time, the Nordic nation’s only Nobel laureate would stay immersed in the ensemble of snow-clad mountains interspersed with tiny waterfalls and the white noise of winds in trees. After his time in nature, he would return home inspired.

He penned over 60 works in seven decades: novels, poetry, plays, short stories, essays, and memoirs, which have been translated into 43 languages.

“Iceland’s natural beauty was a creative muse for Laxness, his inexhaustible source of artistic inspiration,” says Margrét Marteinsdóttir, who manages Gljúfrasteinn, which was Laxness’ home for over half a century and is now a government-operated museum.

“In fact, he would get so lost in the landscapes that his wife would keep a golden gong in their home,” she says. “If he didn’t return until 2:30 p.m., she would go to the backyard and keep hitting the metal disc with a mallet until he was back. If she didn’t do that, he wouldn’t return until evening, not realizing he had missed lunch.”

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]It is said that there are more statutes of writers in Iceland than there are of politicians.[/quote]

Icebergs along Diamond Beach in southern Iceland. Photo by Puja Changoiwala.

A country of literature

Iceland’s natural beauty is one of the several reasons why the tiny island nation publishes the highest number of books per capita in the world. According to a 2016 report from the International Publishers Association, the U.K., with 2,710 books published in 2015, came in at first place. Iceland was a close second, with 2,628 books that year.

This is impressive, however, as the U.K.’s population in 2015 stood at 65 million, while Iceland’s was only 330,000.

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]Iceland has continued to reinforce its infrastructure so that literature, writing, and reading will continue to be pillars of creativity and innovation here.[/quote]

Five titles are published in Iceland for every 1,000 residents, compared to two titles in other Nordic nations. The average print run of fiction, meanwhile, is 1,000 copies — equivalent to a million copies in North America.

Líf Magneudóttir, president of the Reykjavík City Council, says:

“It’s no coincidence that Reykjavík was designated as a UNESCO City of Literature in 2011 — the fifth city in the world and the first non-native English-speaking city to receive the honorary title. During these seven years, Iceland has continued to reinforce its infrastructure so that literature, writing, and reading will continue to be pillars of creativity and innovation here.”

Gljúfrasteinn. Photo by Puja Changoiwala.

Ancestral wisdom

Leading Icelandic authors attribute the COUNTRY’S immense veneration for literature to its medieval sagas. According to the Icelandic Saga Database, a nonprofit repository maintained by Icelanders, the sagas are “a widely recognized gem of world literature.”

They are prose histories that describe events that took place among the Norse and Celtic inhabitants of Iceland during the 10th and 11th centuries. Many of the works were written two centuries later.

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]It’s surprisingly human to know how those first settlers of Iceland felt the same emotions as we do — pride, love, and revenge.[/quote]

Hallgrímur Helgason, an internationally bestselling author, says that to locals, characters in the sagas are bigger than those in the Bible. The medieval literature is an integral part of contemporary Icelandic culture, and references to their words and sayings are still common in everyday communication.

“It’s the sagas’ realism, which is immensely appealing,” Helgason says. “It’s surprisingly human to know how those first settlers of Iceland felt the same emotions as we do — pride, love, and revenge.”

Photo by Puja Changoiwala.

Andri Magnason, a writer whose work has been published and performed in 30 countries, says medieval Icelandic literature holds tremendous wisdom and has been a strong, constant source of creative inspiration to Icelanders.

“Over the past thousand years, Icelanders have left a huge layer of stories,” says Magnason, who was also a candidate in the country’s 2016 presidential election. “The saga histories cover the first settlers — the civil war — weaved beautifully into fairytales and folklore. Icelanders were the first in the world who brought natural beauty into literature, romancing the mountains, flowers, and birds in these textual masterpieces.”

Gullfoss Waterfall. Photo by Puja Changoiwala.

A scarcity of resources and a wealth of imagination

The tradition of writing, which burgeoned with the Sagas centuries ago, has continued into the modern era, says Eliza Reid, first lady of Iceland.

She states that because Iceland is an isolated island in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean, its population was small until the mid-20th century. Marred with volcanoes and disease, the country was incredibly poor. There were no materials available to build artistic architecture or to create musical instruments or painting apparatus. Therefore, the only mode of creative expression accessible to Icelanders was the written word.

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]Icelandic society as a whole recognizes that human beings are creative and that, as a society, we are all obligated to encourage creativity.[/quote]

“You couldn’t be confirmed to the church if you weren’t literate – boys and girls,” says Reid. “This rule placed a natural emphasis on reading and writing, and the tradition has continued into modern Iceland, where there’s immense respect for cultural pursuits. Icelandic society as a whole recognizes that human beings are creative and that, as a society, we are all obligated to encourage creativity.”

Yrsa Sigurðardóttir. Photo by Puja Changoiwala.

Offering a historical context to the Nordic nation’s love of literature, renowned crime fiction writer Yrsa Sigurðardóttir says that during World War II, it was difficult to import goods into the country. Books became increasingly popular as Christmas presents, thereby instilling a strong culture of reading and writing. She says they’re still the most popular Christmas gifts.

“Further, it’s easy to make a living from writing in Iceland,” Sigurðardóttir notes. “The government offers various grants, awards, and fellowships to writers. There’s also an artists’ salary, which is very competitive. Writers can apply and they can get a salary or stipend while they pursue their writing. Also, there are numerous literary awards for different genres and categories.”

The Icelandic countryside. Photo by Puja Changoiwala.

Collaboration and equality

A 2017 study published in the Gifted and Talented International journal, entitled “Creativity and innovation in Iceland: Individual, environmental, and cultural variables,” conducted a comprehensive literature review and concluded that creativity among Icelanders was a result of their individual, social, educational, and cultural attributes.

The study states that apart from egalitarian relationships in Iceland— and support for women’s creative output — an important factor that enables greater creativity is the country’s less hierarchical society. Through an online phone book, for example, it is easy to reach out to peers, leading artists, local officials, and business professionals, as well as garner help for one’s projects and collaborations.

Furthermore, according to the study, children are largely given the space for exploration in schools and at home, which “encourage[s] both imagination and the creative process.”

Margrét Marteinsdóttir. Photo by Puja Changoiwala.

Creative support

Erica Jacobs Green, who has two decades of publishing experience and works as the editorial director with Kids Books at National Geographic, founded the Iceland Writers Retreat in 2012.

The seven-day event takes place in Reykjavík and hosts an eclectic mix of writing workshops and tailored cultural tours involving readings from local authors against the backdrop of Iceland’s lunar vistas and introduce participants to the country’s natural beauty and literature.

The 2018 event was attended by participants from 17 countries. Green attributes its popularity to the strong literary heritage and tradition of the Nordic nation, which serves as an inspiration to writers from all over the world.

She recalls a conversation with a former Icelandic president, who shared with her a piece of local lore: “It’s not for nothing that it is said that there are more statutes of writers in Iceland than there are of politicians.”

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