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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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- Planning a Trip to Iceland: DOs and DON’Ts
- Iceland Itinerary: Off The Beaten Path on a Snæfellsnes and Westfjords Road Trip
- 14 Places Not to Miss on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula
- How Much Does an Iceland Trip Cost? Our Road Trip Budget
- The Ultimate Iceland Packing List for Men and Women (Carry-On Only)
- Visiting Iceland in September: What to Expect and Things to Do