Eymundsson is the oldest bookseller in Iceland and has branches all over the country. // ©2015 Creative Commons user halighalie
Feature image (above): Mosfellsdalur is home to Halldor Laxness Museum, former home of Iceland’s first Nobel Laureate. // © 2015 Creative Commons user stignygaard
Iceland has the highest per capita rate of books published in the world, with five titles released for every 1,000 citizens. Statistics show that one in 10 of its citizens will publish a book. Its capital, Reykjavik, is a designated UNESCO City of Literature. So it should be come as no surprise that the country is a treat for literature lovers.
To explain Iceland’s love of reading and writing, Brynhildur Sverrisdottir, co-owner of Nordika Travel, a travel agency specializing in travel to Iceland and the Nordic and Artic regions, pointed to the country’s economic history and gloomy winter weather.
“Iceland was an extremely poor country, and the winters were long and dark,” Sverrisdottir said. “Families used to huddle together and someone would always tell a story or a poem.”
Sverrisdottir also provided a few tips for those interested in exploring Iceland’s rich literary history, so read below for some of the best stops for bibliophiles.
Live Out the Icelandic Sagas
Sverrisdottir singled out the Icelandic Sagas as a turning point for Iceland’s literary history and a source of inspiration for the tours that Nordika Travel creates. Some of the best stops in Iceland are the areas where the heroes of the sagas hail from, such as Borgarfjordur, a fjord in western Iceland that hosted events chronicled in the saga of Egill Skallagrimsson, a Viking-age warrior poet. The area is also known for its stunning natural beauty, excellent hiking trails and fresh seafood.
Eiriksstadir, home to Leif Erikson, another hero of the sagas, is also a must-see for its historical factor. The area houses Viking-themed museums and demonstrations for those who want to see how people in the 10th century lived, plus tons of rustic charm.
Iceland’s Nobel Laureate
Visitors to the country interested in literature might also want to take a stop at Halldor Laxness Museum in the beautiful countryside of Mosfellsdalur. Laxness was a famous Icelandic writer who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1955. The museum is housed in the author’s former residence, which has been well-preserved so that guests can see Laxness’ belongings and furniture just as they were when he wrote his famous stories and poems. Visitors can also watch a presentation on Laxness and take a self-guided tour through his home.
Iceland is home to two of the literary world’s most famous festivals, Reykjavik International Literary Festival and International Festival of Children’s Literature. The former has played host to acclaimed authors such as Kurt Vonnegut, Haruki Murakami, Isabel Allende, J.M. Coetzee and Paul Auster and takes place biannually.
International Festival of Children’s Literature is also a biannual event and features authors and scholars from all over Europe and North America. The festival features readings, panels and workshops that will entertain children and adults alike. The next festival will take place from Oct. 5-9, 2016.
Yet another festival, Reykjavik Reads Festival, is hosted annually in October as well and features a special theme. In 2013, the festival had the theme “Poetry in Motion,” which featured poetry painted on sidewalks, bus stands and billboards around the city.
The Capital of Literature
The true highlight for lovers of literature in Iceland is the country’s capital, Reykjavik. Clients can take a guided walking tour around the city, starting at the City Library in Tryggvagata, which puts on tours for free every Thursday. For those who would prefer to go solo, the Reykjavik Culture Walks app provides a guided walk clients can take at their own pace. Certain city benches also have QR codes that can be scanned for a recorded reading of Icelandic literature on your phone.
If you’re looking to buy books, check out Eymundsson bookstores. Eymundsson is the largest and oldest bookstore in Iceland with branches all over the country. Its Reykjavik location even lets customers print books on demand.
If an independent store is more your speed, Bokin is another great choice. Cozy and welcoming, Bokin is nearly overstuffed with books in Icelandic, English and several other languages. You can find many titles for much cheaper than you would back home.
But if you’d prefer some coffee with your literature, Ida Zimsen is great stop. Many visitors consider it the best bookstore in Iceland due to its selection and quaint ambiance.
Visitors should also stop at Reykjavik City Library, the largest public library in Iceland. It features literature walks and poetry slams; plus, it even hosts its own bookmobile. An additional must-see library is National and University Library of Iceland, which is housed on the University of Iceland campus. The library features several special research collections, including a collection of Laxness’s work and one dedicated to the country’s female writers.