Writing And Reading In Iceland

IMG_2208Iceland, an island nation of just over 300,000 people, has more writers, more books published, and more books read, per capita, than anywhere else in the world. Let that sink in for a moment.

There is a phrase in Icelandic, “ad ganga med bok I maganum,” which means everyone gives birth to a book, or, literally, everyone “has a book in their stomach.” One in 10 Icelanders will publish a book. This is an astounding statistic.

My husband thinks the reason Icelanders read and write so much is because in bad weather (winter), they are not outside much. When it is dark and cold, the people have nothing else to do, and thanks to the their poetic eddas and medieval sagas, Icelanders have always been surrounded by stories.

But I suspect it is something more, and, from what I can tell, Icelanders seem to be decidedly outdoor people: intrepid, adventurous, and hardy in all kinds of weather.

There is an active and supportive writers’ community here, and appreciation for poetry and literature, and all of the arts, is embedded within the culture. The Icelandic government awards competitive grants and stipends to writers annually, making the dream of working as a full-time professional writer a reality for some. Public benches have barcodes so you listen to a story on your smartphone as you sit. The coffee-shop culture in Reykjavik is bustling, and writers who love frequenting coffee shops with character, charm, and a good cup of joe certainly benefit from it. (NOTE: Starbucks has been knocking on the nation’s door for a while now, but Icelanders adamantly refuse to let the giant coffee chain in.)

My Airbnb host, Alma, who seems to be the Mother of Iceland, encourages me to apply for a grant and return to write. I am thinking of doing just that. Her next door neighbor is the famous Stefan Mane, who writes mysteries, the biggest current boom along with crime stories. Iceland’s black lava riverbeds, steaming, bubbling earth, towering volcanoes, and fairytale streams make it the perfect setting for such stories.

The Iceland Writers Retreat has compiled a list of reasons why every budding author should come to Iceland and experience its extraordinary literary culture firsthand. They include 1) the otherworldly, breathtaking, and inspiring landscapes, 2) being one of the few places in the world where anyone can easily drive out into the wilderness and be truly alone to clear one’s head and write, 3) Icelanders’ love for language, 4) the ease of professional networking here, where everyone knows someone who knows someone who can help bring your project to fruition. (There is apparently a lack of competition among writers here, a true desire to help each other out.)

One of the most wonderful examples of Icelandic love for literature is the jólabókaflóð, or Christmas Book Flood, when most books are published. Every household gets a book catalogue through the door. They pore over it like a furniture catalogue. Everyone receives books as Christmas presents, hardback and shrink-wrapped.

“Even now, when I go the hairdressers,” Kristin Vidarsdottir, manager of the Unesco City of Literature project, says, “they do not want celebrity gossip from me but recommendations for Christmas books.”

So here I sit in a campground field near Husavik, one degree from the Arctic Circle, writing. I am wrapped in down and wool, and it is chilly, but I am inspired. It is just hours after France’s World Cup victory, which we watched with an international crew whooping and cheering in the Campgrounds Community room. But outside it’s quiet at 9 PM, and there is no sign of the sun going down anytime soon. It’s time to write.