Iceland is famous for its incredible statistics. Especially when it comes to literature. One out of ten Icelanders will publish a book in their lifetime and on average an Icelander will read 2.3 books a month! This makes Iceland the world record holder for both book publications as well as books read per person a year.
The great Icelandic writing tradition reaches back to the 13th century. This is when Icelanders began telling tales of the Viking age. Since then this custom has only grown stronger. Icelandic writers take on almost every genre. From modern sagas to poetry, from kid’s books and sci-fi to erotic fiction but by far the biggest of them all is crime writing. The dark Icelandic winter nights leave a lot to the imagination and have sparked many lore and fantastic thrillers. It’s no wonder Icelandic crime writers are dropping one best-seller after another.
In recent times audiobooks have also gained a lot more popularity in Iceland, like most places and thankfully the market has responded. Storytell is the Icelandic Audible–very user-friendly and resourceful.
Icelandic authors you need to know about
Arnaldur was born on the 28th of January, 1961 in Reykjavik. He finished a BA degree in history and the University of Iceland and later became a journalist. He published his first book in 1997 and is today is one of Iceland’s best known and most widely translated authors. Arnaldur is exceptionally productive but he has published at least one book a year since his first one in 1997!
Arnaldur’s books have been made into movies, the best known being Jar City from 2006. Many of his books feature protagonist Detective Erlendur. Many Icelanders anxiously await a new book from Arnaldur each year. But as many know from viral posts on Facebook, Christmas is when the phenomenon Jólabókaflóðið e. Christmas-Book-Flood takes place, when all the local authors publish their books. The timing of the publishing schedule could not be more perfect for holiday gift giving and cozying up with a new book during the holidays.
Yrsa was born on the 24th of August 1963 in Reykjavik. She finished a BS degree in engineering in 1988 and later a master’s degree in engineering from Concordia University in Canada. A year after finishing her masters Yrsa published her first book. This might surprise those who recognize Yrsa today but her first book was actually a children’s book. It was called Þar lágu Danir í því, and was published in 1998.
The book was later followed by a few more in the children’s genre. They were well-received and up until 2005, Yrsa was well on her way to becoming a known children’s book writer in Iceland. That is when out of the blue she published her first thriller, Þriðja Táknið or Last Rituals, which put Yrsa on the map. The book would later be translated into 30 languages and published in over 100 countries! Today many know her as the author of I Remember You as it was later made into a chilling thriller movie (available on Amazon)
Andra Snær Magnason
Andri Snær was born on the 14th of July 1973. He graduated from the University of Iceland with a BA degree in Icelandic but had by then already published his first book of poems. The poetry books would later become a series but after that Andri Snær turned to write children’s books. Andri Snær’s most famous children’s book, the Story of the Blue Planet has been made into a play and shown in a few different countries. As someone who grew up reading his book and going to the play, I can tell you that Andri manages to create a magical world filled with wonder and possibilities. This is a great book to bring back from Iceland to read to little ones.
More recently, Andri Snær has turned his attention to writing politically-driven literature. Those who have gained the most attention are Draumalandið and he also worked on a documentary of the same name Draumalandið as well as Lovestar. In 2016, Andri Snær announced that he would be running for president of Iceland, however Guðni Th. Jóhannesson won the race.
Einar Már Guðmundsson
Einar Már is born on the 18th of September 1954 in Reykjavik. He graduated in 1979 from the University in Iceland with a degree in history and literature but would later continue his studies in Copenhagen where he lived for several years. Einar’s first book came out in 1980. He has published 26 books in his career and has received the Nordic Council Literature Prize for his contribution. His most famous book in undoubtedly Englar Alheimsins e. Angels of the Universe which was later made into a film. Einar’s books have been translated into many languages including Italian, Bulgarian, Chinese, Dutch, Korean, Slovenian, Danish, Finnish and Greenlandic.
Steinunn was born on the 26th of August 1950. She graduated with a degree in psychology and philosophy from University College in Dublin in 1972. Surprisingly though by this time Steinunn had already published her first poetry book three years earlier, at the age of only 19.
Steinunn has throughout the years devoted her time quite equally to each genre but she has written children’s books, poetry, short stories, fictional novels, memoirs, whole plays and even done some translations.
FYI: a well established Icelandic fashion designer is also called Steinunn Sigurðardóttir. This might confuse you a bit in your Google search. They are not one and the same. But both excellent in their trade.
Auður Ava Ólafsdottir
Auður Ava was born in Reykjavik in 1958. She has taught art history at the Icelandic University of Arts and was a lecturer in art history at the University of Iceland from 2003-2018. Furthermore, has Auður put up art exhibitions and frequently commends as an expert on paintings and historical art pieces in various media in Iceland.
Her book the Greenhouse (Afleggjarinn, 2007) is one of her most renowned pieces but the one that won her the prestigious French award Médicis was Miss Iceland (Ungfrú Ísland, 2018). Auður Ava’s first book came out in 1998 but in all, she has had eight books published (nine if you count her book of poetry from 2010).
Icelandic books you need to read
The Sagas of Icelanders
The Icelandic Sagas are a collage of stories from the middle ages in Iceland. There are 40 sagas total. They cover tales of kings and Vikings and are some of the best-documented stories from this time world-wide. The sagas are unquestionably the crown jewel in Icelandic literature.
Due to the extreme isolation of Icelanders throughout the centuries, the Icelandic language spoken today is pretty much the same as these stories were written in. This makes it quite easy for anyone who speaks Icelandic to read them in their original form. Thankfully, for those who don’t, the sagas have also been translated into many other languages!
The most famous of the Sagas:
- Egils’ Saga Skallagrímssonar
Egill was, quite frankly, a great poet with anger issues which he displayed from an early age. In the stories, the truth has a bit of added “flavor.” This artistic license is demonstrated in scenes like when Egill, at the age of three, rides his horse to a party, drinks until drunk, and recites a poem written by himself. Nevertheless, it is an incredible tale!
- Grettis Saga
The story of Grettir the Strong, is probably one of Iceland’s craziest heroes and his story is about his time as an outlaw. You’ll want to read up on his shenanigans if you visit the North of Iceland where he lived. There you will, for example, find Grettislaug hot pool where he bathed after having swum across fjord Skagafjordur, as legend tells it, with a sheep under his arm!
- Njals Saga
Njals Saga is an incredible tale of families, disputes, honor, revenge, love and bloody murder. In it, you’ll find some of Iceland’s most famous characters and the namesake to many Icelanders today who carry their name with pride. The majority of the stories take place on the South Coast of Iceland, especially in Landeyjar, Seljalandsfoss’s surrounding plains.
Onto contemporary Icelandic literature
Atom Station by Halldór Laxness
Halldor Laxness is the only Icelanders ever to win a Nobel Prize. However, many don’t know this but Gunnar Gunnarsson, another Icelander, was nominated four times!
But back to Laxness, if you ask an Icelander to name an Icelandic writer, Laxness is typically the first to come to mind. From his detailed descriptions of life in a fishing village, human connection and communication, to lovingly crafted characters. Laxness has made himself an unmovable pebble in the Icelandic culture pond. Atom Station was published in 1961 and sold out the very same day. It is political yet truthful and for anyone trying to understand Icelandic society better, it truly gives great insight.
However, to chose just one of Laxness’s books is difficult. So, I will personally vouch for Independent People and Salka Valka who should be joined with Atom Station on your Icelandic books reading list!
The Day is Dark by Yrsa Sigurðardottir
Here, Yrsa once again proves her dark sensibilities can work magic in the crime fiction genre. The main character is Thora – who plays the main role in Yrsa’s crime series – is an Icelandic lawyer who, through her German banker boyfriend, gets tangled in an investigation involving the disappearance of two Icelanders. The investigation takes her to Greenland where the main story takes place. Prepare for a lot of mystery and suspense, plot twists, and chills up and down your spine!
101 Reykjavik (2002) by Hallgrímur Helgason
This book is simply the perfect blend of humor and dreadful reality explored through the unaccomplished 30 something oddball Hlynur, who falls in love with his lesbian mother’s lover. There are twists and turns and each page invites you to a new dilemma without becoming a farce.
Hallgrímur Helgason is an artist with words just like a paintbrush, he is one to follow.
Moonstone – The Boy Who Never Was (2013) by Sjón
Sjón is to many famous for his series of short work written and translated in the 2000’s. However, to others, he is one of the founders of the Sugarcubes, the band that started Björk.
Nonetheless, The Boy Who Never Was is reasoning enough for you to give notice to Sjón. The boy, that the title refers to, is a 16-year-old in Reykjavik in 1918 who sells his body to men for money. The story is tragic yet beautiful in some way. The boy’s daydreaming and effectuation with cinema play a vital role in the telling of the story. Eventually, the story is revealed to be quite personal to Sjón. Which certainly came as a surprise but for me added a genuine touch to the whole ordeal.
Angels of the Universe (1995) Einar Már Guðmundsson
This is an amazing story, that everyone in Iceland reads as a part of their mandatory high school studies. It is a tale of mental illness, decorated with humor through humanity in its purest form. In the book, Einar Már tells stories of his childhood neighbors, respectfully writing them in with made-up stories. The book and many of its scenes have carved into the Icelandic nation and you can find references all around in daily life.
The movie, directed by Friðrik Þór Friðriksson from 2000 is also fantastic and well worth a watch, starring many of Iceland’s most prominent actors.
Another one who is worthy of attention. If you speak French or German then Karitas untitled by Kristín Marja Guðmundsdóttir is the one for you!
A bonus mention – Book About Iceland
Burial Rites (2013) by Hannah Kent
This is Hannah’s first book ever published and is based on true events that took place in Iceland in the dark winter of 1829. Hannah became consumed with the story when she lived in Iceland for a rotary exchange year at the age of 17. And, luckily for us, decided to pursue it.
The story is remembered in Iceland as the last execution but is also a tale of social classes, poverty, betrayal, love, jealousy and, eventually, murder and cover-up. The book became a best-seller all around the world as people bonded with the main character, Agnes. Which was then followed by an announcement in 2017 that the book would be made into a film starring Jennifer Lawrence in the role of Agnes
An Icelandic interview with Hannah Kent about the book in English from 01:01.