Iceland: Where Storytelling Forms the Basis of Everyday Life


November 9th, 2016

By Daniel Penev

Guest writer for Wake Up World

The land of ice and fire – this is the first association millions of people make about Iceland. Although ice and fire are part of the puzzle, they are not the only things Iceland should be famous for.

The small island nation, which lies approximately in the middle between the Scandinavian countries and North America, stands out with a highly dynamic cultural and artistic scene. On the top of the pyramid stands the Icelanders’ centuries-old love for storytelling.

Some say reading is a national sport in Iceland. Others describe it as a religion. Classifications of this kind clearly show that reading in Iceland a way of living, a necessity without which everyday life would be inconceivable. Iceland ranks among the leading nations based on the number of writers and the number of books published per capita, as well as reading activity. The Icelanders like to express their values, impressions and views through in written form. BBC reports that every tenth Icelander will publish at least one book in their lifetime. Over the past few years, Icelandic literature has been garnering increasing popularity abroad. The most successful among contemporary Icelandic writers is crime author Arnaldur Indridason. He has so far sold more than 12 million copies worldwide – a praiseworthy achievement on its own but even more so when analyzed in light of the fact that Iceland has a population of just over 336,000.

Reading and writing in Iceland throughout history

The Icelanders “love books and are very proud of their literary heritage”, writers Icelandic author, journalist, translator and consultant Alda Sigmundsdottir in her The Little Book of the Icelanders. “The Icelanders have no palaces or stunning monuments of which to boast, but they do have their manuscripts, which they count as their most valuable national treasures.”

Storytelling has occupied a central place in Icelandic history and culture since the first settlers from Norway and the British Isles reached the island in the late 9th and early 10th century. Soon after, the first writers appeared, producing literature on calf skin. As Bifrost University professor, writer and publisher Einar Svansson explained in an interview for this story, these manuscripts were extremely valuable but were sometimes used as food due to food scarcity.

Described as Iceland’s Golden Age, the 13th century saw the appearance of some of the best-known Icelandic Sagas, which are now a major source of knowledge about Scandinavian mythology and history. The Icelandic Sagas, especially those of the Vikings from the 10th century and Snorri Sturluson’s Sagas from the 13th century, belong to the most remarkable cultural treasures in world history. They have also exerted a strong influence on prominent writers such as J. R. R. Tolkien (The Lord of the Rings) and George R. R. Martin (A Song of Ice and Fire).

After the 13th century, the Icelanders went through numerous difficulties. The country was under Norwegian rule between 1262 and 1387. In 1387, both Iceland and Norway came under Danish control. Iceland regained its sovereignty only in 1918 under a common king with Denmark, and the Republic of Iceland was officially proclaimed on 17 June 1944. In times of hardships and misery, the Icelanders found inspiration and a source of national identity and pride in their language and literary tradition.

The harsh climate and the long periods of darkness in the winter contributed to the development of Icelandic literature. Under such unfavorable conditions, storytelling and reading became a favorite pastime through which the Icelanders, children in particular, could simultaneously entertain and educate themselves. Children usually mastered reading and writing and had their first lessons in history and geography by reading, telling and retelling the Sagas. This explains to a large degree how the Icelanders achieved relatively high literacy rates despite the widespread poverty in those days. The Icelanders also appear to have had the habit of keeping journals and diaries in which they marked events and impressions of their surroundings.

Icelandic language and literature acquired further significance in the 20th century, especially during the fight for independence from Denmark. In 1931, the Icelandic government adopted laws which led to the introduction of high taxes on many expensive imported goods, such as electric appliances. These taxes reduced the range of products available in the markets across the country which, in turn, made book gifting very popular on holidays.

Reading grew still more popular in Iceland as a result of the limited TV content available. To encourage people to talk to one another and develop intellectually and spiritually, the Icelandic government implemented a specific policy in relation to TV programming. According to that policy, there was no TV in July until 1983 and on Thursdays until 1986.

Together, these peculiarities of Iceland’s historical development have laid the foundations and help explain the popularity of Jólabókaflóð, an annual Christmas book fair that takes place in Reykjavik. In the weeks leading to the end of the year, Icelandic households receive a catalogue with information about most of the books published in the country during the year. Icelandic publishers release many of the titles they have planned for the year and generate approximately 80% of their annual sales in the last two  calendar months when thousands of people buy books as Christmas presents for their relatives and friends. Since they are intended as Christmas gifts, many of these books come out on high-quality paper and with more sophisticated covers. According to the data available, every Icelander on average gave 2.1 books for Christmas in 2014 and received 1.2 books as presents in the same year.

Quantity along with quality

Contrary to what happens in other countries, quantity in Iceland doesn’t seem to undermine quality. The large number of books and writers per capita creates a dynamic environment in which competition and the extensive presence of literature in the public realm produce conditions conducive to the production of first-class literary works.


In 1955, just 11 years after the Republic of Iceland was proclaimed and at a time when the country had a population of about 156,000, Icelandic writer Halldor Laxness received the Nobel Prize in Literature. “It was not only a prize for our writer but it was also a prize for Iceland writing all the stories, because Laxness was partly using some of the old stories,” Einar Svansson of Bifrost University told Wake Up World.

The global significance of the Icelandic literary tradition was highlighted again in 2011 when Reykjavik became the first city to be named UNESCO City of Literature in which English is not an official language. Before Reykjavik came Edinburgh, Iowa City, Melbourne and Dublin.

Today, Iceland takes pride in quite a few world-known authors. Along with Arnaldur Indridason, the most translated contemporary Icelandic writers include Einar Már Guðmundsson, Sjón, Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, Jón Kalman Stefánsson, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir and Kristín Marja Baldursdóttir. To illustrate the international success of Icelandic writers, Stefan Paunov, a Bulgarian translator of Icelandic literature based in Reykjavik, gives the following example: the novel The Greenhouse by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir has sold over 200,000 copies in France, where a book selling more than 50,000 copies is considered a bestseller.

“Iceland and Scandinavian Europe more generally are an unknown, if not mysterious, territory: harsh climate, exotic nature, sparsely populated lands, a different culture, incomprehensible languages,” Paunov said. “All of these provoke one’s curiosity, and many people show interest in getting to know these countries, visiting them, reading their literature, watching their movies. It is precisely in the Scandinavian literature and cinema where people can find this northern uniqueness. In addition, Iceland obviously has a large number of good and talented authors. The big countries don’t have the monopoly on good literature. Talented writers are born and can develop their potential all over the world.”

Icelandic literature has enjoyed international success thanks to the universal themes it discusses, which can resonate with readers from different countries, cultures and social strata, Paunov said. Strangely or not, the unfavorable climate in Iceland has also had a positive influence on Icelandic literature. “The climate in Iceland can be very severe and merciless, and this has led to the idea that man is [powerless] in relation to the elements,” Paunov said. “He doesn’t rule the world, but the world rules him. This attitude translates into the writing and that’s why Icelandic literature is humble, quiet and free of pathos. I think readers like this a lot.”

The role of the Icelandic government

The Icelandic government knows well that a small nation like Iceland can only preserve its national consciousness and make progress by taking care of its language and culture.

Iceland’s language policy has produced positive results. Contemporary Icelandic is almost the same as 13th-century Icelandic. This means Icelanders today can read and understand Snorri Sturluson’s Sagas. Unlike Norway, Denmark, and Sweden, Iceland has taken special steps to preserve and enrich the Icelandic language. Instead of borrowing loads of words from English, German and other languages, the Icelanders coin new words or reintroduce old words and clothe them in new meanings.

The Icelandic government supports publishers and authors through its literary fund. The fund provides financial assistance for the publication of Icelandic fiction, works of non-fiction that have the potential to promote Icelandic culture, and high-quality foreign literature in Icelandic. The fund is operated by the Icelandic Literature Center, which was founded in 2012 and brought together the Icelandic Literary Fund and Fabulous Iceland. The main task of the center is to preserve and develop the literature scene in the country. The subsidies get allocated through a transparent contest. To be eligible to apply, publishers have to meet certain criteria. The subsidies for Icelandic publishers support the book publishing industry in the country, while the subsidies distributed among foreign publishers promote Icelandic literature abroad. In addition, the government offers travel grants for Icelandic authors, foreign publishers, theater troupes and literary festivals promoting Icelandic literature. The Icelandic government also offers residential grants to translators of Icelandic literature. The approved candidates have the opportunity to work in a stimulating environment in the country for between two and four weeks.

Bi location

The Icelandic government provides stipends for Icelandic writers and artists for periods of varying duration through the so called Icelandic Artists’ Salaries. Again, the stipends are allocated through a contest with clear rules and procedures. According to information provided by Ragnheidur Tryggvadottir, manager of the Icelandic Writers’ Association, up to 80 writers get grants from the fund in the form of salaries for between three and 24 months.

“Writers who write in Icelandic write for a minuscule market, and book sales alone are not enough to support them financially,” writer Alda Sigmundsdottir told Wake Up World. “So if Iceland wants to have a literary culture in this day and age, they need to support writers.”

The book market and reading culture in Iceland today

“[T]he literary scene in Iceland is extremely lively,” says Egill Örn Jóhannsson, head of the country’s largest publishing house (Forlagið).

In an interview with The Guardian, Jóhannsson says that over 100 publishers operate in the Icelandic book market each year, receiving new manuscripts from Icelandic authors virtually every day. Despite the country’s small population and, thus, the limited number of potential customers, the Icelandic book industry registers an annual turnover of about EUR 40 million.

The astonishing performance of the Icelandic national football team during the 2016 European Championship in France has generated an even greater interest in Icelandic authors and their work, Jóhannsson says in the same interview. This interest comes from readers and publishers not only from Europe and the USA but also from countries as far away as South Korea and Taiwan.

“[O]ne of the best ways to get to know a country and its people is through its literature, so in a way this is very understandable, as the football team and its supporters made headlines in world news for a couple of weeks,” Jóhannsson says.

The value-added tax (VAT) on books (print and electronic) in Iceland is 11%. It stood at 7% until January 2015 when the government raised it, along with the VAT on magazines, music and food, to the current 11%. At the same time, the government lowered the standard VAT from 25.5% to 24% and removed the taxes on many imported goods.

“Publishers and authors did not cherish this decision, but we are yet to see how this will affect the market,” Bryndis Loftsdóttir, vice director of the Icelandic Publishing Association, said in an interview in December 2015.

Novels by contemporary Icelandic authors sell for EUR 25-30 on average, while modern Icelandic poetry sells for EUR 15-20, says Einar Svansson of Bifrost University. The most successful contemporary literary works in Iceland sell up to 20,000, Svansson explains.

The books published in Iceland include titles from established and young Icelandic writers as well as celebrated foreign ones. The numbers for 2015 illustrate the balance: 50% of the works of fiction published last year were Icelandic and 50% – in translation. The ratio is different in children’s literature: out of all children’s books published in Iceland last year, 38% were written by Icelandic writers and 62% – by foreign ones.

In recent years, Iceland, similar to other countries, has seen reading activity going down. According to a 2013 Bifrost University study, 93% of the Icelanders read at least one book a year. At the same time, half of the nation read at least eight books every year.

Another survey from last year paints a slightly different picture, however. It shows that the number of non-reading Icelanders had nearly doubled, from 7% to 13.3%. Despite this negative development, 86.7% of the Icelanders continue to read at least one book every year, which places them among the most avid readers in the world.

The Icelanders continue to read extensively but they do so in a different fashion and in different locations, Einar Svansson said. While he thinks his countrymen will keep reading, he worries about the future of Icelandic literature since many Icelandic children now speak Icelandic and English at similar levels as a result of online content and computer games. Svansson expects that the Icelandic publishing industry will gradually focus on e-books because of three potential advantages of digital books over printed ones: convenience, lower prices and less environmental impact.

While she recognizes the reality of changing reading patterns, writer Alda Sigmundsdottir thinks print books will endure in Iceland. “There is a very strong literary tradition, especially around Christmas, so I don’t think books will disappear from shelves any time soon.”

About the author:

daniel-penevDaniel Penev, 23, is a young Bulgarian journalist who graduated from the American University in Bulgaria (AUBG) in May this year, double-majoring in journalism and political science and international relations. He is now doing a one-year M.A. program in international relations at the Central European University (CEU) in Budapest, Hungary. Daniel has completed internships with various media organizations in Bulgaria. He has also participated in exchange and training programs in the UK, Germany, Belgium, France, the Czech Republic, Turkey, and Iceland. Since March this year, Daniel has been an associate member of the Association of European Journalists – Bulgaria (AEJ-Bulgaria). He has had one story of his published on as well, and he is soon to have a feature story about how libraries have reinvented themselves to stay relevant in the 21st century published in The Millions.

Daniel can be reached at:


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