Iceland is experiencing a book boom. This island nation of just over 300,000 people has more writers, more books published and more books read per head, than anywhere else in the world, reports the BBC.
“It is hard to avoid writers in Reykjavik.There is a phrase in Icelandic, “ad ganga med bok I maganum”, everyone gives birth to a book. Literally, everyone “has a book in their stomach”.
“One in ten Icelanders will publish one.
“Does it get rather competitive?” I ask the young novelist, Kristin Eirikskdottir. “Yes. Especially as I live with my mother and partner, who are also full-time writers. But we try to publish in alternate years so we do not compete too much.” Special saga tours – saga as in story, that is, not over-50s holidays – show us story-plaques on public buildings. Dating from the 13th Century, Icelandic sagas tell the stories of the country’s Norse settlers, who began to arrive on the island in the late 9th Century. Sagas are written on napkins and coffee cups. Each geyser and waterfall we visit has a tale of ancient heroes and heroines attached. Our guide stands up mid-tour to recite his own poetry – our taxi driver’s father and grandfather write biographies. Public benches have barcodes so you listen to a story on your smartphone as you sit. Reykjavik is rocking with writers. It is book festival time. Man Booker Prize winner Kiran Desai and Generation X author Douglas Coupland rub shoulders with Icelandic literary superstars Gerdur Kristny and Sjon. First written down in the 13th century, the sagas contain some of the richest and most extraordinary writing of the Middle Ages. They often depict events known from the early years of Icelandic history, although there is much debate as to how much of their content is factual. Full of heroes, feuds and outlaws, with a smattering of ghosts and trolls, the sagas inspired writers including Sir Walter Scott, William Morris and WH Auden. Sjon also pens lyrics for Bjork, Iceland’s musical superstar.
“Writers are respected here,” Agla Magnusdottir tells me. “They live well. Some even get a salary.” Magnusdottir is head of the new Icelandic Literature Centre, which offers state support for literature and its translation. “They write everything – modern sagas, poetry, children’s books, literary and erotic fiction – but the biggest boom is in crime writing,” she says.”