The Best Iceland Books: What to Read and Why

Iceland books reading time

blog authorBy Johanna Sigurðardóttir shield verificationVerified Expert

    Some people love nothing more than to curl up with a good book, several uninterrupted hours lying ahead of them. If that’s you, then you’ve come to the right place. Iceland has much to offer the literary inclined, with everything from crime novels to historical sagas, landscape poetry and beyond available to snatch up.

    In this article, we will be exploring a plethora of must-read Iceland books. From classic Icelandic literature to the best factual books about Iceland. So whether you’d like to escape to an imaginary world or stay with your feet firmly on the ground, there’s a novel waiting for you. Read on to discover the perfect Iceland book for you. 

    We’ll be covering the following:

    • Icelandic reading traditions
    • The must-read Iceland books
    • Classic Icelandic literature
    • Top Icelandic poetry books
    • Icelandic reading traditions
    Iceland books at a bookshop

    Icelandic reading traditions 

    Iceland is a highly literate nation with a deep affinity for the written word. In fact, one surprising statistic states that 1 in 10 Icelandic people will publish a book in their lifetime. While not everyone will pen a tome, another statistic shows that well over 90% of the population read at least one book every year.

    This devout love of reading was confounded over the course of the Second World War. During these war years, paper was one of the few things that wasn’t rationed. As a result, the printing press went into overdrive. Books ran rampant and became the go-to gift at Christmastime.

    In fact, the book publishers’ calendar still very much revolves around the wartime tradition of Christmas book gifting. Every year a book bulletin is sent out to all households in Iceland in preparation. In fact, this tradition even has a name associated with it: Jolabokaflod, which roughly translates to Christmas book flood.

    The tradition revolves around gifting books on Christmas Eve and then reading them together amongst friends and family. For many families in Iceland, Christmas Eve is spent curled up at home enjoying new books.

    It is a quiet family time with everyone coming together to read, accompanied by some nice nibbles and warming drinks.

    Iceland books tradition

    The must-read Iceland books

    Here we’re mostly covering novels by Icelandic authors that have been translated into English. There are also a couple of well-researched books that are set in Iceland, but written by non-Icelandic writers, that have made the list. 

    The Blue Fox by Sjón

    Published in 2003, this enigmatic Iceland book won the Nordic Literary Prize and was nominated for several more awards. Set in the long, snowy winter of 1883, the story charts a hunt for the blue fox in the title. The lone huntsman is a rather persistent priest. It’s an interesting plot and one that will keep you hooked throughout.

    Iceland books: The Blue Fox

    The Fish Can Sing by Halldór Laxness

    Written by one of the most famous Icelandic authors who is also a Nobel Prize Winner, this humorous account of an orphan growing up with a traditional fisherman is set in the early 20th Century. It offers a fascinating insight into what life was like in Iceland at this time.

    The unconventional family in the story lives in a turf-roofed house and welcomes a string of interesting visitors. The whole novel documents a time of social change in Reykjavík when both the fishing industry and the city are growing quickly. Life is changing in Iceland and time marches on.

    The Fish can sing Icelandic book

    Butterflies in November by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir

    This rather bizarre comedy documents the singular life of one woman. We meet her after she has befallen a series of disappointing relationships, but her fortune suddenly changes when she wins a summerhouse in Iceland in a lottery. She then embarks on an adventurous road trip around the country, getting up to all sorts of antics along the way.

    Iceland books: Butterflies in November

    Burial Rites by Hannah Kent 

    This excellent novel is a fictional account of a true story. Agnes Magnussdottir was convicted of murder and was the last woman to be executed in Iceland in 1830. Australian writer Hannah Kent has done some serious research into life in Iceland in the 1800s in order to craft Burial Rites, and by all accounts, things were pretty tough back then.

    Burial rites Icelandic novel

    The Draining Lake by Arnaldur Indriðason 

    This easy-to-read crime novel is written by one of the royals of Nordic Noir. It is part of a series of books that chart the murder cases of Inspector Erlendur. In this compelling page-turner, the inspector investigates the case of a body found in a lake. There are some mysterious and intriguing Cold War connections linked to the case as well. 

    Iceland books: The Draining Lake

    Woman at 1000 degrees by Hallgrímur Helgason

    This is an original and zany dark comedy all about one woman who lives in a garage. As Herra Björnsson looks back on her life she recounts all sorts of misadventures in her past. She also spends a lot of time on social media, creating characters of her own and causing trouble. This is one highly original Icelandic book!

    Woman at 1000 degrees book cover

    The best books about Iceland 

    If non-fiction books are more your thing or you’re looking for the best Iceland guidebooks, then these gems are for you. 

    Lonely Planet’s Iceland Travel Guide

    For a straight-up comprehensive guide to Iceland, you can’t go far wrong with the Lonely Planet guide. With up-to-date info on all the practicalities of travel in the Land of Fire and Ice, this is probably the best Iceland guidebook in print.

    The Little Book of Tourists in Iceland by Alda Sigmundsdottir

    This fun, useful and insightful little book was written by an Icelandic person to help and entertain tourists in Iceland. Author Alda Sigmundsdottir wrote it soon after the sharp rise in tourism to Iceland that started in around 2010. So she also takes a close look at the effects tourism has had on the country. 

    Readers will learn how to be a responsible and eco-friendly tourist in Iceland and gather many insights into the country. It’s also a great read to learn more about some of the country’s curious mythology.

    Book of tourists in Iceland

    The Little Book of the Hidden People: Twenty stories of elves from Icelandic folklore

    Another in the excellent series of short and sweet Iceland books written by Alda Sigmundsdottir. This one delves into the strong folklore traditions of Iceland. Elves or the Little People (Huldufolk), as they are referred to in Iceland, are very much a part of Icelandic life. In fact, many people actively believe that they are real. 

    This neat little book explores all of these fascinating stories and more. We meet both elves and trolls and learn about their stories and their strong connections to the landscape. This one is a great bedtime storybook for around the campfire!

    Iceland books: Hidden People

    Iceland, Defrosted by Edward Hancox

    This book is a memoir, or perhaps a love letter to Iceland. From its many natural wonders to its quirky music and art, the English writer describes all of the many reasons why he adores Iceland. It’s an excellent book to pick up before or after your visit to the Land of Fire and Ice.

    Iceland defrosted book cover

    Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland by Sarah Moss

    This is a wonderful book that offers an outsider’s perspective on the close-knit society of Iceland. Writer Sarah Moss moved to Reykjavík to teach in the university, and the book documents her life there. She covers the Icelandic psyche, as well as traditions, myths and contemporary life. Another perfect book to whet your appetite pre-travel, or perhaps one to inspire a return trip.

    Iceland books: Names for theSea

    Classic Icelandic literature 

    The Sagas of the Icelanders, author unknown 

    Written in the 13th century, The Sagas of the Icelanders documents the lives of some of the first settlers in Iceland which would have been around the 9th Century. They are of great importance in the history of Iceland and are required reading for all Icelandic students. These stories follow the lives of the great families of the time and offer lessons on morality.

    It has to be said that due to their antiquated style and subject matter, they are not the easiest read. However, they do offer a real insight into the history and foundations of the nation. There are several books offering simplified, abridged and explained versions of the Icelandic saga books, so these are probably the best ones to seek out.

    The Sagas of the Icelanders

    Independent People by Halldór Laxness

    This 20th century classic Iceland book won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955. It charts the life and times of a rather stoic farmer eking out a living from the land. It was first published in two parts in 1934 and 1935. Although its literary prowess can’t be denied, it is indeed a little gloomy, so it’s not the most uplifting read.

    Iceland books: independent people

    Top Icelandic poetry books

    Beneath the Ice: An Anthology of Contemporary Icelandic Poetry

    This is hands down our favorite Icelandic poetry book. It is a fantastic one to dip into before a trip to Iceland. With a broad cross-section of poets and styles, one thing really shines through: the Icelandic people’s love and connection to the natural world and especially to their own unique corner of it 

    Iceland poetry books

    Immerse yourself in these Iceland books!

    These reads will provide a fascinating and different insight into Iceland. Covering everything from its past to its traditions and how the country has gradually become the nation we all know today. Literature is held in high regard in Iceland, so if you fancy starting a similar tradition in your house, then why not go Iceland themed?

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