October 16, 2013

One out of every ten people in Iceland will try to sell you his book


“I can’t wait to work this into my novel.”

Iceland is experiencing a book boom, according to Rosie Goldsmith of the BBC, with “more writers, more books published and more books read, per head, than anywhere else in the world.” Goldsmith estimates the number of writers in Iceland is about one in ten.

We reported in June that proportionally, Iceland published three times the number of books Sweden and Norway did annually, and double the number from Denmark or Finland. But one in ten!

“We are a nation of story tellers,” novelist Solvi Bjorn Siggurdsson explained to the BBC. “When it was dark and cold we had nothing else to do.”

You could blame the weather. You could also blame Halldor Laxness, Iceland’s Nobel Literature Laureate. Laxness inspired gas stations to sell his books, pet owners to name their cats for him, and gave a bunch of people in Iceland “the confidence to write,” according to Siggurdsson.

The city of Reykjavík now hosts an International Literary Festival each year, drawing writers from all over the world. The country prides itself in its literary history, offering “saga tours” of Norse settlers dating back to the 13th Century, as well as park benches with QR codes that allow visitors to listen to a short story while they sit.

“Writers are respected here,” the head of the new Icelandic Literature Centre, Agla Magnusdottir, told the BBC. “They live well. Some even get a salary.”

Many write crime fiction, which sells twice as well in Iceland as in neighboring countries. But surely it’s hard for publishers to spread the word about books when their catalogs are overflowing? Jolabokaflod, the “Christmas book flood,” arrives this time of year. And aside from the strangers who must corner them in the street or read them poetry in cabs, how do citizens cope with the flood of books by people they know personally?

“I live with my mother and partner, who are also full time writers,” novelist Kristin Eirikskdottir said in Business Insider. “But we try to publish in alternate years so we do not compete too much.”


Kirsten Reach is an editor at Melville House.