11 Books From Iceland You Must Read

A man reading in a book shop corner.

What are considered to be the best books from Iceland? How can they teach us about Iceland today? And are the Icelandic people truly as prolific in their writing as it is claimed? Read on to find out all of this and more.  

Let’s begin by clarifying Iceland’s historic contributions to world literature. Almost everyone knows about the mediaeval sagas. These were epic tomes that speak of courageous settlers. Reigning Scandinavian kings. And vengeful Norse Gods vying for power. 

In short, there is a deep tradition for storytelling here. Modern-day Icelanders continue to write engaging and original works of fiction. In doing so, they sculpt a new place for themselves in the realm of words, grammar, and publishing. 

After all, it is said that one in ten Icelanders will publish a book in their lifetime. An admirable stat for such a diminutive population. So what are the reasons behind their affinity for weaving such fanciful tales? Is it that the dark winters provide for plenty of time to sit at the proverbial typewriter? Or maybe their passion for narrative is so ingrained as to be inescapable? 

How do Icelanders celebrate their literary roots?

Iceland Publishers' Association 2023 book fair
Photo: Golli. Iceland Publishers’ Association 2023 book fair

Whatever the case, cultural events like Jólabókaflóð (The Christmas Book Flood) and the Reykjavík International Literary Festival demonstrate just how deep this devotion to the written word has become. And by taking just a small stroll around Reykjavik, you will also spot plenty of bookshops, many of which remain wholly independent and offer a wide selection of titles in both English and Icelandic. 

For the sake of this article, let’s focus solely on books that have been translated into English and have made a significant cultural impact. So, what are the most widely celebrated novels to have come out of Iceland over the last century, and what prescient insights about this island’s culture can we glean from their pages?

1) Independent People (1934) by Halldor Laxness 

Halldor Laxness and his wife
Photo: Gljúfrasteinn / Laxness Museum

If there is one author who towers above all others in the pantheon of Icelandic writers, it is Halldór Kiljan Laxness. Born in 1902 in Reykjavik, Laxness began writing at an early age, his imagination inflamed by the poetry sang to him by his grandmother. 

His first published works appeared in the newspaper, Morgunblaðið, in 1916. His first novel, Barn náttúrunnar (Child of Nature) was released only three years later, beginning what would be a hugely influential, sometimes controversial, but ultimately incredible literary career.

Laxness’ best known work is Independent People, the story of an impoverished farming family struggling to overcome the inhospitality of the landscape, and the prison-bars laid down by a burgeoning capitalist nation. 

Originally, the novel was released in two parts and deals with themes of social realism and what, if anything, should be willingly sacrificed to ensure independence of the individual. Presenting a rather bleak view of rural life in Iceland during that time, it is still often said that Independent People is one of the greatest books of the 20th Century. 

Quite deservedly, it was Independent People that secured Halldor Laxness the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955. He remains Iceland’s only Nobel Laureate. 

Laxness Museum
Photo: Gljúfrasteinn / Laxness Museum

Where can you learn more about Halldor Laxness?


Laxness wrote many other critically-acclaimed books, including
The Fish Can Sing (1957) and Salka Valka (1931). While not overly appreciated in his time, another of his books, The Atom Station (1948), was an early example of an urban novel set in Iceland, cementing the framework for later works based in Reykjavik. 

You can discover more about Halldor Laxness at Gljúfrasteinn hús skáldsins, his former home and now museum on the leafy outskirts of Mosfellsbær. This cosy building is a great place to not only learn more about Iceland’s most acclaimed author, but see firsthand how the man lived and worked. Your tour will begin with a brief documentary about his life and output, and audio guides help explain the exhibitions inside. 

Evocative and inspiring for anyone interested in making writing a career, the house is very much as the great man left it. Even if his shoes and ties can be seen hanging in the cupboard! 

2) Angels of the Universe (1993) by Einar Már Guðmundsson

 

 

Angels of the Universe has left its mark on Icelandic literature in ways that most other books have not. 

Written by Einar Már Guðmundsson, the semi-autobiographical work tells the story of Paul, covering everything from his early childhood to his death. The book was acclaimed for its incredible balance between comedy and tragedy. It quickly found a devoted audience both in Iceland and abroad. 

Guðmundsson won the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize in 1995 for his novel. Five years later, Friðrik Þór Friðriksson directed a feature film adaptation of the same name.

The film won countless accolades upon its release, including Best Film and Director of the Year at the prestigious Edda Awards. 

3) Jar City (2000) by Arnaldur Indriðason

Author Arnaldur Indridason
Photo: Arnaldur Indridason

Written by renowned crime-fiction author, Arnaldur Indriðason, the premise of Jar City is not for the faint of heart. Detective Erlendur investigates the corpse of an elderly man, found dead in his flat, and apparently killed by a glass ashtray thrown at him in a moment of passion. 

A mysterious note, plus a photograph depicting a girl’s gravestone, are the only clues as to what may have happened. Little by little, Erlendur pieces together that, forty years before, the deceased escaped conviction for sexual assault. 

Those with a deeper inside knowledge of Icelandic enterprise will, no doubt, recognise that much of the book is a steadfast criticism of deCODE genetics, a biopharmaceuticals company based in the capital. 

In 2006, a film was produced from the novel, directed by Baltasar Kormákur. 

4) The Blue Fox (2003) by Sjón

An arctic fox on a beach in Hornstrandir, Westfjords.
Photo: Golli. An arctic fox on a beach in Hornstrandir, Westfjords.

Taking place in 1883, this short and surreal story by the acclaimed writer Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson – better known as Sjón – follows two morally complex characters trying to survive in rural Iceland. 

The first is a priest who is doggedly hunting down an elusive blue fox. The second is a herbalist forced to bury a young woman following discovering her in a shipwreck. 

Throughout the events of the book, the changing nature of reality is a common motif, putting readers on edge as they too try to comprehend just what in the story is true, and what is conjured up in the imagination of its protagonists. 

Critics describe the book as a piece of magical-realist fiction, and it earned Sjón the Nordic Prize for Literature in 2005.

5) Hotel Silence (2016) by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir

Writer Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir
Photo: Wikimedia. CC. Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir

Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir’s novel follows a divorced, forty-year-old man struggling with a midlife crisis as he travels through a war-ravaged Balkan country state. As readers soon discover, the reason for his being there is that he hopes to be killed, saving the possibility that his Icelandic daughter might discover his body should he commit the act at home. 

Despite the heavy subject matter, the book is rife with lighthearted witticisms and tender reflections on what it means to be human. Hotel Silence is just as capable as being tragic as it is hilarious, intimate, and powerful.

Having published three novels and countless poems, Auður is one of Iceland’s most esteemed writers, having won many literary awards both at home and in France. In 2018, she received the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize for her work on Hotel Silence

Two years after, Auður published another well-received novel called Miss Iceland that focuses on the conservative nature of 1960s Iceland, and a determined woman attempting to break the mould by becoming a writer. 

6) I Remember You (2012) by Yrsa Sigurdardottir

 

 

A spine-tingling ghost story by acclaimed children’s and crime author, Yrsa Sigurdardottir. It follows three friends as they renovate an abandoned and isolated house. After a short while, it becomes obvious that something malevolent within the house is trying to make them leave. 

As you can imagine, the permeating horror and eldritch themes in this novel does not make it suitable for young readers.  

The central mystery of I Remember You creeps up slowly. A doctor in a nearby town uncovers how the suicide of his former patient began with an obsession she had with her vanished son. How these two seemingly unrelated events intertwine sets the scene for what becomes a truly terrifying read. 

In the past, Yrsa’s penchant for horror has been compared to masters of the genre like Stephen King. 

7) The Fires: Love & Other Disasters (2020) by Sigríður Hagalín Björnsdóttir

Meradalir eruption, August 2022
Photo: Golli. Meradalir eruption, August 2022

A sharp rise in earthquakes and eruptions demonstrate that Iceland is likely entering a new chapter of volcanic activity. These events have been limited to the Reykjanes Peninsula, and there is no indication that Iceland’s population is in danger. 

Of course, those living on the peninsula – such as the former residents of Grindavík – have had their lives turned upside down. There is great sympathy both at home and abroad for how they have been affected. But still, the point remains. By and large, Icelanders remain safe from incurrent lava flows. 

However, in the world of fiction, Sigríður Hagalín Björnsdóttir explores the worst case scenario. In her new novel, The Fires: Love & Other Disasters, she asks the question. What if Iceland was to be made unliveable by a catastrophic volcanic eruption?

The story focuses on a determined volcanologist named Anna Arnardóttir. As a true scientist, Anna places great importance on clear and rational thinking. She does so often at the expense of allowing personal feelings to cloud her views. But, as the threat of a large volcanic eruption threatens to destroy the Icelandic nation, she finds herself faced with another dramatic obstacle – love!

For those rare, but die-hard fans of romantic-disaster stories, Sigríður’s book is the perfect choice. Though it might make you irrationally fearful about Iceland’s molten underbelly, this novel contains plenty of fascinating science that will provide a clear understanding of the volcanic forces that characterise this island. 

8)  Öræfi: The Wasteland (2014) by Ófeigur Sigurðsson 

Sólheimasandur
Photo: Sólheimasandur Plane Wreck

Once known as Litla Hérað (Little District,) Öræfi is among Iceland’s most barren regions. It has lain deserted since the violent 1362 eruption and glacial flooding at Öræfajökull volcano. As far as dramatic settings go, it is a fitting place. One that can serve as a blank canvas upon which the author can experiment with literary styles and influences.  

In Icelandic, Öræfi translates to “desolation” or “wilderness.” While this might at first strike you as a somewhat bleak and depressing title, this expansive literary work is as filled with lighthearted comedic moments as it is profound drama and illuminating scientific theories. 

The major event of the book is when its title character – an Austrian toponymist by the name of Bernharður Fingurbjörg – falls headlong into a glacier. However, given the interweaving threads that make up this epic novel, it’s an incident that almost seems inconsequential to the plot, but one that instead allows for Ófeigur to explore countless subjects and lines of inquiry. 

9) The Woman at 1000 Degrees (2011) by Hallgrimur Helgason

 

 

The Woman at 1000 Degrees caused widespread and controversial coverage upon its release in Iceland in 2011 due in large part to the fact that many of its characters and events were taken directly from real life. Hallgrimur Helgason left a note at the beginning of the book stating what follows is a work of fiction. However, claims suggest that surviving family members do not appreciate the depiction of their relatives.. 

Scandals aside, this story is as enthralling as it is personal, strange, and quirky. It showcases Hallgrimur’s flair for writing in its most biting and unsentimental form.

As is often the case with Icelandic novels, the premise begins on a dark note. It is narrated in the first-person from Herra’s perspective.

She is an elderly woman nearing the end of her life. We begin by knowing that she has scheduled her own appointment at the crematorium. In roughly two weeks’ time, they will cook her body at a scalding 1000 degrees.

Hence the title of the book. 

While waiting for this self-imposed finale, she recounts various experiences from her life. First we learn that she is the granddaughter of Iceland’s first President. She also once kissed a member of the Beatles. Her father fought in the Second World War on the side of Nazi Germany. She once married and was a mother to children. She even lived through the financial crash. We learn all this and more, right up until where we find her in the novel. Having mastered the internet and living in a small garage smoking endless cigarettes. 

10) Heaven and Hell (2010) by Jón Kalman Stefánsson

fishing lumpfish net
Photo: Golli. Lumpfish being caught in East Iceland

Described as ‘Like an oyster – a glinting treasure in a rough shell,’ Heaven and Hell is the first book of Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s widely-lauded trilogy. 

It is set in the harsh reality of 19th-century Iceland. This superb story explores how the tumultuous ocean relates to the lives and deaths of those who dare brave it. Fishermen struggle against monolithic waves. Tempestuous storms. And unruly companions as they fight to earn a meagre living.So, people compare the intensity of reading this novel to the drama and inhospitality of Iceland’s own coastal waters.

The novel’s protagonist – known only as ‘the boy’ – sets sail on a cod fishing boat with a strange crew. But he soon becomes disillusioned upon observing their callous reaction to a tragedy aboard the vessel. Abandoning his crewmates, he heads back to land. As expected, he is uncaring as to whether he survives the perilous journey or not. But once he reaches shore, he realises that circumstances are not much better there than they were at sea…

The next two books The Sorrow of Angels and The Human Heart continue to follow the story of the title character. Both delve into the interplay between the forbidding nature of Iceland and the stoic lives of those who endure it.  

11)  A Fist or a Heart (2019) by Kristín Eiríksdóttir

 

 

As Kristín Eiríksdóttir’s first novel translated into the English language, A Fist or a Heart makes for a fantastic introduction to one of Iceland’s most celebrated modern authors. Here in Iceland, she has been a huge name in the local literary scene since releasing a collection of short stories, Doris Dies, in 2010. 

The main character of A Fist or a Heart is Elín Jónsdóttir, a lonely seventy-year-old woman who creates gruesome props for a theatrical company based in Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik. Aside from busying herself with work, Elín becomes increasingly interested in who she deems to be a fellow outsider. A young, upcoming playwright named Ellen Álfsdóttir. 

As the story progresses, we as the reader learn that these two characters share many experiences. Troubled childhoods. Struggling to remain independent within their respective creative visions. And yet, the harder Elín attempts to unravel the parallels, the more her connection with reality wanes. This confusion lays the groundwork for an intricate and emotionally-astute novel. One that deals with themes of isolation and creativity on its own terms. 

Laxness – Why You Should Still Read Him

Laxness and his letters of congratulation following his Nobel prize win.

The first time I tried to get acquainted with the work of Halldór Laxness, the iconic Icelandic literary figure who won the Nobel Prize in 1955, I was 13 years old. The book was Innansveitarkrónika, a mandatory read for school, and I hated it from the very first page. I fail to remember the plot of the story, but I do recall being infuriated that this misspelt excuse for a book was being forced upon us (for those who don’t know, Laxness did not agree with the spelling rules of certain words). My second attempt was five years later. It was also a school read, but this time, the book was Independent People, one of Laxness‘ most well-known books. I must admit that I struggled through the first half; the story was intolerably slow, and I cared neither for the main character nor his traditional Icelandic sheep farmer life. But coming into the second half, something changed, so much so that it propelled me completely into the world of Icelandic literature and landed me in an undergraduate programme studying it. I have since happily devoured several more of Laxness’ books, and here are four reasons why you should, too.

1. His stories will reveal to you the core of Icelandic society and psyche

They are a superb exploration of the roots of the Iceland spirit and culture. Some would even say that they reshaped those very things and granted the nation an entirely new vision of itself. In his writing, Laxness left few stones of the Icelandic society unturned, and the riveting stories he published are as varied as they are many. The hardships of farming and fishing life, the presence of the US army in the country, class struggles, love, and the fight for independence are all on the Halldór Laxness reading menu, amongst a myriad of other subjects. At the core of all these stories is a deep knowledge of Icelandic history and culture that few have managed to represent as well as Laxness. 

2. His writing is a feast for the brain

A true master of words, Laxness rarely wrote one that was out of place. Although his linguistic virtuosity and unique style have been reported to get somewhat lost in translation, his attention to detail stays intact. From weather descriptions to internal monologues to the birds hanging around by the beach, every word is carefully chosen and plays a part in his vivid story world creations. 

3. His characters are one of a kind

Exceptionally well-written characters are at the heart of each of Laxness‘ books, many of which have become one with the Icelandic consciousness. Quirky, contradictory and sympathy-evoking, they are delivered to us through an extraordinary understanding of both human nature and what it means to be Icelandic. If Laxness‘ eloquent words are not enough to lure you in, his powerful character portrayal is bound to accomplish that.

4. He can make you laugh

Humour might not be the thing you think about in relation to last century‘s books, but Laxness was actually a pretty funny guy. His writing has been described as dramatic, epic, dour-droll and tender, but it‘s also heavily sprinkled with comical interactions and conversations that you can‘t help but chuckle at, even decades after they were written. Throughout heartbreak and hardship, the foolishness of life is never far off.

5 Icelandic Authors that Aren‘t Laxness

A man reading in a book shop corner.

It’s often said that the Icelandic nation is a nation of books. We read, write and publish a tremendous amount and have a rich history of literature going all the way back to the Icelandic Sagas of the 13th and 14th centuries. For those wanting to dig into the Icelandic literary tradition, the author you’ll be most likely to encounter in your search for books is probably Halldór Laxness. Having won the Nobel Prize, he is undoubtedly the most famous Icelandic author. He’s also well worth reading, but in case you already have, or if you just fancy something else, there are numerous other outstanding Icelandic authors you can choose from. Here are our top five recommendations.

Sigríður Hagalín Björnsdóttir (b. 1974)

Sigríður is a well-known news anchor who had her first book published in 2016. Her debut novel, Blackout Island, was a smash hit among the Icelandic people. With a continuum of unusual plots, excellent writing and compelling character relationships, she‘s kept dazzling the nation. Her first and third novels have been translated into English. Both are outstanding representatives of modern Icelandic literature, but the third, The Fires, is perhaps the most remarkable Icelandic novel of the 21. century. It revolves around a series of volcanic eruptions on the Reykjanes Peninsula and was published in the fall of 2020, only a few months before the first in a series of still ongoing eruptions on the peninsula

Gunnar Gunnarsson (b. 1889, d. 1975)

A trailblazer in the context of Icelandic literature, Gunnar was the first Icelander to become a professional writer. Although he lived in Denmark for the first 30 years of his writing career and wrote his books in Danish, all of them are set in Iceland. His books were immensely popular, not only in Iceland and Denmark but across Europe, and in 1955, he was nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature. Over the course of his career, Gunnar published nearly 50 novels, short stories, poetry books and plays. Many of them, for example Advent, The Black Cliffs and Guest the One-Eyed, are considered among Icelandic classics and are still widely read. 

Jón Kalman Stefánsson (b. 1963)

It can be said without a doubt that Jón Kalman is one of the big names in modern Icelandic literature. Writing in a non-traditional form, his poetic and enchanting novels gained international attention following the Trilogy About the Boy and have been translated into numerous languages. He has been nominated for well-known prizes, such as the Man Booker and the Nordic Council, and has twice been considered a likely recipient of the Nobel. In 2005, he won the Icelandic Prize for literature for his novel Summer Light and Then Comes the Night, which was adapted into a movie in 2021. 

Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir (b. 1958)

An art historian turned writer in 1998, Auður has published eight novels, five plays and a poetry book, several of which have gotten her Icelandic and international nominations and prizes. The Greenhouse, Miss Iceland, and Hotel Silence were particularly well received. Auður‘s books, which have been translated into more than 25 languages, are often centred around communication, miscommunication and intriguing questions about humanity. Her writing is unostentatious and beautiful, a true testament to simplicity and quietude.

Steinunn Sigurðardóttir (b. 1950)

Steinunn grabbed the attention of the Icelandic nation at age 19 when her first poetry book, Sífellur, was published. She has since written more than 20 novels, novellas and poetry books and has become one of Iceland‘s most beloved writers. She‘s not afraid to give space to flawed and unlikeable characters, whom she commonly uses to explore the various aspects of love, be it unrequited, difficult, dramatic, obsessive, complicated, or something in between. Amongst her most critically acclaimed books are The Thief of Time, Place of the Heart and Yoyo

Record Sales at Icelandic Publishers’ Book Fair

Iceland Publishers' Association 2023 book fair

A total of 97,829 books were sold at the Icelandic Publishers’ Association book fair in Reykjavík, which ended yesterday, RÚV reports. That is over one book sold for every four residents of Iceland – or every 2.5 residents of the capital area. A recent study found that Icelanders read or listen to an average of 2.4 books per month.

The Icelandic Publishers’ Association has held a book fair since 1952, and this year’s edition ran from February 23 to March 12 at Laugardalsvöllur in Reykjavík. Bryndís Loftsdóttir, the fair’s CEO, says Icelanders are clearly excited about reading. “The last four years have been difficult, both because of the pandemic, but also because of crazy precipitation that also made it hard for us. But even though the weather has been cold now there’s nothing better than coming here and getting a good book and then snuggling up on the couch at home.”

Around 50% of the books sold at the market this year were children’s books. Fiction accounted for another 20%, while nonfiction books and puzzle books accounted for the remaining 30%.

A survey conducted last year by the Icelandic Literature Centre found that over a third of Icelanders read or listen to books on a daily basis. The average number of books read per month had risen between 2021 and 2022. In early 2022, audiobooks accounted for a third of books read in Iceland.

A Third of Icelanders Read Books Every Day, Study Finds

book literature Icelandic

Icelanders read or listen to an average of 2.4 books a month, according to a new survey conducted by the Icelandic Literature Centre. The survey notes an increase in the number of individuals who read five or more books a month and those who report not reading at all.

One in three reads every day

According to a new survey conducted by the Icelandic Literature Centre – which has been conducted annually since 2017 – the percentage of individuals who “never read” has increased (from 32.1% last year to 40.4% this year). However, so has the percentage of individuals who read five or more books a month. The survey, which was conducted between October 14 and November 8 of this year, comprised 1,409 respondents (out of 2,800).

The survey also found that over a third of Icelanders read or listen to books on a daily basis. The average number of books read per month has risen over the past two years; last year, Icelanders read an average of 2.3 books a month, compared to 2.4 books this year. 65% of respondents stated that they only or mainly read books published in the Icelandic language, which is up from 58% compared to last year.

Gender-based differences

The survey also found significant differences between the genders. According to the results, women read an average of 3 books a month compared to 1.7 among men. The gap between the genders has slightly narrowed between the last two years, however.

Here are a few other takeaways from the survey:

  • Older people read more than younger people; individuals between the ages of 18 and 24, which was the youngest age group to be surveyed, read fewer books on average when compared to older age groups.
  • University graduates read a greater number of books on average when compared to less formally educated individuals.
  • There is no significant difference between the reading habits of capital-area residents and rural residents.
  • Approximately 18% of Icelanders report reading an equal number of books published in Icelandic as in other languages; approximately 14% read more frequently in languages other than Icelandic; and about 3% of respondents stated that they only read books in languages other than Icelandic.
  • People under the age of 34 are more likely to read in languages other than Icelandic when compared to older age groups.
  • 27% of university students said that they read more frequently in languages other than Icelandic.

When it comes to the Icelanders’ taste in reading, most prefer novels, or 59%. Crime fiction was the second most popular genre among respondents.

Just over a third borrow books from libraries

Over a half of respondents, 55%, stated that they received book recommendations from friends and relatives; 35% stated they were influenced by coverage from traditional media; and 31% from social media.

Over the past 12 months, just over a third of Icelanders have borrowed books from libraries. The survey found that women borrow books from the library more frequently than men and parents with two or more children at home borrow books from the library most frequently.

The results also indicate that fewer people are giving books as gifts when compared to last year.

The survey was conducted by the Icelandic Literature Centre in collaboration with the Reykjavík Library, the Association of Icelandic Book Publishers, Hagþenki, the University Library, Reykjavík UNESCO Literary City, and the Writers’ Association of Iceland.

A Third of Icelanders Read Daily

icelandic books

A new report from the Icelandic Literature Center has shed new and interesting light on the reading habits of Icelanders. The annual study has been carried out since 2017.

On average, Icelanders listen to 2.4 books per month, with 32% of the nation reading at least once a day.

Read more: Rising Prices of Christmas Books

However, Icelandic readership is undergoing a notable shift, with both the groups of those who never read and those who “binge read” growing.

The study also reported a marked difference between the genders, with women reading significantly more than men. The gender gap also correlates with a gap in education, with the college-educated generally reading more than those with a secondary level of education.

Older people were found to read on average more than younger people, with the youngest group polled, those between 18 and 24, reading the least out of all groups.

In a comparison between the capital region and Iceland’s countryside, no significant difference was recorded.

Some 65% of Icelanders read either exclusively or mostly in Icelandic. This represents a slight change from last year, when the figure sat at 58%. 18% of those polled read equally in Icelandic and another language, with another 14% of residents reading more often in another language than Icelandic. Finally, 3% of those polled read exclusively in another language. The language difference also breaks down along age, with those 34 and younger generally reading in other languages more often than the older groups polled.

Read more: Audiobooks Account for a Third of Books Read in Iceland

Usage of public library resources was also recorded, with women again using the library more often than men. Among the top users of public libraries were households with two or more children.

The report, which can be read in full here, was authored in cooperation with the Reykjavík City Library, Association of Icelandic Publishers, Hagþenkir, the National and University Library of Iceland, Reykjavík UNSECO City of Literature, and the Writers’ Union of Iceland.

A Third of Icelanders Read Five or More Books in the Past Month

book bookstore Icelandic literature bækur

It’s the time of the Christmas book flood, or jólabókaflóð, in Iceland and it seems that Icelanders are reading just as avidly as ever before. According to new figures published by the Icelandic Literature Center, a third of the nation read five (or more!) books in the past month and 68% gave someone a book in the last 12 months. While interest in literature and reading remain high, however, there is a growing number of Icelanders who read “little or not at all.”

Response to the question “How many books have you read or listened to in the last 30 days?” Light green: 3 or 4; Dark green: 5 or more; Blue: 1 or 2; Red: None (Icelandic Literature Center)

This is the fifth year in a row that the Icelandic Literature Center has conducted a survey on Icelanders’ reading habits in conjunction with six other literary organisations in the country, including the Reykjavík City Library, Reykjavík UNESCO City of Literature, and the Writers’ Union of Iceland. As last year, this installment also focused on the impact that COVID-19 has had on locals’ interest in literature but found that the pandemic is no longer having a significant impact on Icelanders’ reading habits.

Results showed that Icelandic men are reading less this year (1.5 books/month), while women are reading as much as they did before (3.1 books/month). On average, the nation reads an average of 2.3 books a month. People aged 18-24 read significantly less than people in older age brackets. A healthy majority of Icelanders, or 79%, believe that it is important for Icelandic literature to have financial support from the government, which is an increase from last year, when 73% were in agreement about this.

Icelanders still read ‘traditional’ books, with 78% saying that they’ve read a physical book in the last 12 months. This is down somewhat from last year, during the height of the pandemic, when 83% of respondents said they’d read a physical book. Audiobooks remain as popular as they were last year, with 46% of respondents having listened to one in the last year. Only 31% had read an e-book.

Icelanders still mostly prefer to read in Icelandic: 29% only read in Icelandic, while 28.8% read in Icelandic more often than they read in other languages. 19.5% read in other languages just as often as they read in Icelandic, 19.6% read in other languages more often, and 3% only read in other languages. In the same vein, 80.5% of the nation believes that it’s important for works of foreign literature to be translated into Icelandic.

Figure: Responses to the question “Do you read in Icelandic or in other languages?” Green: More often or only in Icelandic; Blue: As often in Icelandic as in other languages; Red: More often or only in other languages (Icelandic Literature Center)

The reading survey was conducted from October 22-31 and was sent to 1,800 individuals aged 18 and older. A total of 992, or 55%, responded.

Book Sales Up By 30% in Iceland

Books by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir on a shelf.

Pre-Christmas book sales are up by 30% in Iceland compared to the same time last year, RÚV reports. Giving books as Christmas presents is a long-standing Icelandic tradition, and it looks like that tradition is not going to disappear any time soon. One Icelandic printing company has acquired equipment making it possible to produce hardcovers in the country for the first time in three years.

Icelanders have a long-standing tradition of giving books as Christmas presents. Publishers have supported this trend for decades with a flurry of new books released in the months leading up to Christmas. This surge in new titles is known as Jólabókaflóðið or the Christmas Book Flood. As the nation flocks to bookstores, the period is not only one of increased literary and cultural discussion – it’s also financially crucial for many publishers, who rely on sales during the flood to stay afloat.

Perfect Conditions for Reading Books

Heiðar Ingi Svansson, Chairman of The Icelandic Publishers Association, says many factors explain the recent jump in sales. “Of course very diverse and good publishing to begin with. I think that matters.” Statistics do show that publishing seems to be growing and diversifying in Iceland. “And the conditions we are living with are of course perfect conditions for reading books.” Heiðar says the Nordic noir books of authors Arnaldur Indriðason and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir are selling well as usual, but children’s literature is also flying off the shelves.

Possible to Reprint Locally

Printing company Prentmet Oddi recently purchased a hardcover machine that allows Icelandic publishers to produce hardcovers in the country for the first time in three years. This means that books that sell better than expected can be reprinted locally and return to shelves sooner. Local reprinting can have books ready in five days, as opposed to three to six weeks if they were to be reprinted abroad. This will allow publishers to make the most of the Christmas book flood this year.

Read More: Icelandic Publishers Optimistic About Christmas Book Flood

Fans of Icelandic literature who don’t speak the language will also be glad to hear that translations of Icelandic literature into foreign languages have tripled over the past decade. Around 40 titles have recently been translated into English, or will soon be published in English, in the US and UK, according to the Icelandic Literature Centre.

Icelanders Reading More During Pandemic

Books by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir on a shelf.

Icelanders are reading more books and listening to more audiobooks this year than last year. A survey commissioned by the Icelandic Literature Centre shows that Icelanders are now reading 2.5 books per month, up from 2.3 around the same time last year. The survey found that women read more than men, and families with two or more children read more than others in Iceland.

More Reading in Icelandic

More than one third of respondents who listen to audiobooks (36%) said they consume more of them now than they did last year and 18% of those who read traditional books said they read more now than before the pandemic. Audiobook consumption increased overall from last year.

More respondents this year reported reading exclusively or most often in Icelandic than in last year’s survey (61%). Those 18-35 read more in languages other than Icelandic than any other age group. Around 80% of respondents stated they felt it was important that new foreign books were translated into Icelandic. The majority of respondents, or 73%, considered it important for Icelandic literature to have public funding (this figure was similar to last year).

Women and Families With Children Read Most

Families with three or more children read more than households with no children and also reported using libraries most. Around half of the survey’s respondents reported that they use library services.

Women read more than men, according to the survey’s findings. While women in Iceland read on average 3.1 books per month, men read just 1.9. Men’s reading has increased more between years, however, while women’s reading has stayed largely the same. Around 78% of the survey’s female respondents had read a book in the past 30 days while 65% of male respondents had.

Spending the Same on Books

While the COVID-19 pandemic seems to have encouraged reading among Icelanders, it does not appear to have affected book purchasing much. Around 78% of respondents said they buy a similar number of books now as they did last year, while 16% say they buy fewer and 6% that they buy more.

The survey was commissioned by the Icelandic Literature Centre in collaboration with six other organisations in the literature industry and carried out by Zenter. The sample size was 2,200, of which 1,101 responded.

Icelandic Publishers Optimistic About Christmas Book Flood

iceland books

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, Icelandic publishers are not especially worried sales will drop during this year’s Christmas Book Flood, RÚV reports. While restrictions limit the number of shoppers in bookstores, sales remain steady, and many locals are turning to online stores to buy the books on their Christmas shopping list.

Icelanders have a long-standing tradition of giving books as Christmas presents. Publishers have supported this trend for decades with a flurry of new books released in the months leading up to Christmas. This surge in new titles is known as Jólabókaflóðið or the Christmas Book Flood. As the nation flocks to bookstores, the period is not only one of increased literary and cultural discussion – it’s also financially crucial for many publishers, who rely on sales during the flood to stay afloat.

“There is so much uncertainty that both are possible. You can be optimistic or you can be pessimistic,” stated Guðrún Vilmundardóttir head of publishing company Benedikt bókaútgáfa. “It’s much better for the soul and the nerves to be optimistic so I’m just going to allow myself to be that.” Guðrún says there has been significant interest in Benedikt’s newest titles and online sales are promising.

Read More: Icelanders Opt for Audiobooks During Pandemic

Borgar Jónsteinsson is director of sales at Penninn-Eymundsson, Iceland’s largest bookstore chain. “You could say the action hasn’t started yet,” he told reporters. “But book sales are nice and even and pretty much on par with the same time last year,” Borgar stated. “I’m very optimistic because I also see that publishing is good now.”

Read More: Record Number of Icelandic Books Published in 2019

Recent history also suggested there are reasons for booksellers to be optimistic despite the economic situation. Books sold well in Iceland in 2008 and 2009, during the recession that followed the banking collapse. Perhaps Icelanders will also turn to the deep-seated tradition of book-giving this Christmas as well.