10 Best Books About Iceland to Read Before You Visit

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These Iceland books are the best way to prepare for your trip to this beautiful and unusual island.

Iceland is a very literary country. It has a near universal literacy rate, a tradition of reading that dates back to the 13th century Sagas, and one in ten Icelanders will publish a book in their lifetime.

Iceland publishes more books per capita than anywhere else in the world. Many of these are released during Jólabókaflóðið (Yule book flood) in the months before Christmas due to the tradition of giving books as Christmas presents (a custom I can heartily get behind).

The books about Iceland on this list include non-fiction to help you learn more about the culture and history of this isolated North Atlantic island, as well as novels set in Iceland by classic and contemporary Icelandic authors.

I really enjoyed delving into Icelandic literature as the country has produced a surprising number of excellent writers who’ve had great success abroad and been widely translated. Icelandic crime writers are especially popular, which is rather odd considering the low crime rates in the country.

These are my favourite Icelandic novels and non-fiction books.


Non-Fiction Books About Iceland

1) The Little Book of Tourists in Iceland by Alda Sigmundsdottir

This is the one book I think everyone should read before visiting Iceland. It explains the tourism boom that has seen visitor numbers rise exponentially since 2010, what Icelanders think about us, and the impact it has had on the country.

You’ll learn what not to do, tips for touring Iceland safely and responsibly, and the truth about Iceland myths. It’s a short, easy and enjoyable read.

2) The Little Book of the Icelanders by Alda Sigmundsdottir

Another short and entertaining book by Alda, this is an insight into the unique Icelandic people with all their quirks.

The short essays cover naming conventions (including why names have to be approved by a committee and professions like alien tamer and ghostbuster are listed in the phone book), how hot tubs are the equivalent of British pubs, why Icelanders hate commitment, dating and family life, and the shower police at swimming pools.

3) Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland by Sarah Moss

Sometimes it’s useful to get an outsiders' perspective on a country. This is a memoir of a British woman who moved to Reykjavik with her family to teach at the University just after the economic crash. It’s a fascinating look at Icelandic culture as she struggles to fit into the close-knit society.

During her year in the country, she explores issues like the financial crisis, knitting, elves (the hidden people), life in the olden days, volcanic eruptions, and describes the passing of the seasons. I learnt a lot about the country and especially enjoyed the final section when she travels around the country and describes the beautiful Snaefellsness Peninsula.

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Icelandic Novels

4) Woman at 1000 Degrees by Hallgrímur Helgason

I loved this highly original dark comedy about Herra Björnsson, an old Icelandic woman living in a garage with a hand grenade and a laptop. She spends her time on Facebook pretending to be other people, hacks into her children’s accounts, makes an appointment for her cremation, and looks back on her adventure-filled life.

The main focus of her memories is how she got caught up in WWII in Germany as a teenager when her father decided to fight for the Nazis. She retells her horrific experiences without any self-pity and often with comedy. Herra is unlike any character I’ve read before.

5) The Fish Can Sing by Halldór Laxness

Iceland’s most revered author, Halldór Laxness, won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1955. His book Independent People is considered one of the best Icelandic novels, but I decided to start with the more accessible (i.e less depressing) The Fish Can Sing.

It’s a lightly humorous coming of age novel about orphan Alfgrimur who spent his childhood in a simple turf cottage with an elderly fisherman and a stream of eccentric house guests. It’s a fascinating insight into early 20th-century life in Iceland—a time of change when Reykjavik was becoming the capital and large fishing boats threatened the lifestyle of simple fishermen.

6) I Remember You by Yrsa Sigurdardóttir

This ghost story is set in the Westfjords in the town of Ísafjörður (which we visited) and a remote village in Hornstrandir with two separate but slowly merging storylines. It’s atmospheric and creepy rather than gory, and although I’m not usually a horror fan, I enjoyed it.

7) The Draining Lake by Arnaldur Indriðason

Arnaldur Indriðason is the master of Nordic Noir with his bestselling Icelandic detective series featuring Inspector Erlendur. I dived in at number four in the series about a body that’s discovered in a lake near Reykjavik with ties to the Cold War era. It's an easy, enjoyable read with some insights into life in Iceland.

8) Butterflies in November by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir

A zany black comedy about a woman who is dumped twice in one day, wins a summer cabin and the lottery, and takes off on a road trip around Iceland’s Ring Road with a deaf-mute four-year-old. Their madcap adventures make a fun read. 

9) Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

This is the only novel by a non-Icelandic writer on the list, but it’s obvious that Australian author Hannah Kent has done a huge amount of research for her book set in Iceland.

It’s a fictionalised account of the true story of Agnes Magnussdottir, the last woman executed in Iceland in 1830. There are no prisons in the country so she’s sent to a farm to await her execution and we gradually learn how she was convicted of murder. It seems to present a realistic depiction of the harsh life in rural Iceland in the early 1800s.

The story is reminiscent of Alias Grace and is being made into a film starring Jennifer Lawrence.

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Icelandic Sagas

10) The Sagas of the Icelanders

The Icelandic Sagas are one of the world’s greatest literary treasures. They were written in the 13th century and documented the settlement of Iceland by Vikings in the 9th century and the early struggles and conflicts of the first settlers.

The Sagas are hugely important in Iceland, and you’ll see references to them everywhere. I found the introduction to this collection of Sagas useful to get an understanding of their importance, but I admit I struggled to get through the tales themselves. It’s definitely worth trying though!

I hope these Iceland books give you some insight into the culture so you’ll make the most of your experience in this fascinating country.

I also recommend the Lonely Planet Iceland guidebook for planning your trip as well as these other posts:

If you’re looking for more travel reading, see our book guides to Japan and South Africa and our favourite travel memoirs and coffee table travel books

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  1. Your travel posts and tips are excellent. Thank you for all of this great information. My only comment concerns travel insurance. The majority of travel insurance carriers do not cover anyone 70 years and older. This is very frustrating as I am 70, in great health, and love to travel though I can not find travel insurance.

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    • I agree it is very annoying that most travel insurance doesn’t cover over 70s. It is possible to get cover but it will need to be from a specialised provider and will be more expensive. It depends where you are from what the options are. I hope you are able to find some.

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  2. I would add Iceland Saga by Magnus Magnusson to your list. It’s a great description of different places in Iceland with a historical or saga event that happened there. It really made the place come alive for me.

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  3. Having visited a paradise called Iceland in 2017, I’ve developed a deep love for Icelandic literature. I loved-loved Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. Good to see Hallgrimur and Arnaldur in the list – though I’m yet to read the books featured here. But I enjoyed The Shadow District and Silence of the Grave by Arnaldur and The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning by Halgrimur. Looking forward to reading more Icelandic books!
    (Also, I think it would done justice to acknowledge the English translators of most of the books in the list!)

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  4. I’m planning a trip to Iceland for February and I’m already excited! I will definitely consider reading some of the books from your list – or get one as a gift for my husband who’s going with me as a Christmas gift. Time to start building the anticipation! :) Thanks for sharing!

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