The best books to read if you want to understand Iceland

Michael Ridpath Author Of Where the Shadows Lie
By Michael Ridpath

The Books I Picked & Why

The Vinland Sagas: The Norse Discovery of America

By Magnus Magnusson, Unknown, Hermann Palsson

Book cover of The Vinland Sagas: The Norse Discovery of America

Why this book?

I love the sagas. They are stories first told a thousand years ago about the Norse settlers in Iceland. They are crisp, subtle, exciting with some excellent characters, especially the women. My favourites are the two Vinland Sagas, which describe the discovery of Greenland and then North America (Vinland) by Erik the Red and his family. This includes the wonderful Gudrid, who was born in Iceland, got married in Greenland, gave birth to a child called Snorri in Vinland, and then went on a pilgrimage to Rome. All in about 1000 AD! 


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The Little Book of the Icelanders: 50 Miniature Essays on the Quirks and Foibles of the Icelandic People

By Alda Sigmundsdottir, Megan Herbert

Book cover of The Little Book of the Icelanders: 50 Miniature Essays on the Quirks and Foibles of the Icelandic People

Why this book?

The Icelanders are remarkable people with some pretty strange habits. Optimistic, energetic, friendly in a very reserved way, armed with irony that can kill at ten metres, they do not fit the classic Scandinavian stereotype. Over the last decade, as I have researched Iceland for my various Magnus novels, the Icelandic-Canadian Alda has been my guide on all things Icelandic. She gets to the bottom of their quirks and foibles in this brilliant little book of fifty or so essays about the people who live on a treeless volcano with appalling weather. Very funny. Very illuminating.


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Independent People

By Halldor Laxness

Book cover of Independent People

Why this book?

To understand Icelanders, I believe you need to understand Bjartur. Bjartur is the independent hero of Halldór Laxness’s greatest novel, Independent People. The book is set at the beginning of the twentieth century. Over eighteen years as a shepherd, Bjartur saves the money to buy his own farm on some very marginal land. Bjartur’s life is a struggle to eke a living out of this farm, called Summerhouses. He marries twice, faces starvation and destitution, but never gives up on his dream of remaining an independent farmer. He is stubborn to the point of cruelty. He is also a poet and sensitive to the folklore around him.  Bjartur’s descendants live on in the streets of Reykjavík; don’t mess with them.


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How Iceland Changed the World: The Big History of a Small Island

By Egill Bjarnason

Book cover of How Iceland Changed the World: The Big History of a Small Island

Why this book?

To understand a country, you need to understand its history. This book is the most accessible account of Iceland’s history and is also very funny. I wish it had been written ten years ago when I started out on my Iceland odyssey. Egill covers the whole of Iceland’s history from Ingólfur throwing his home pillars into the sea in 874 to decide where he should land, to the great women’s strike of 1975 when 90 percent of Icelandic women stopped doing what they were expected to do and the country came to a stop. Also includes my favourite bit of Icelandic history. On 9 May 1940 Hitler invaded Belgium and Holland and that same day Britain invaded Iceland, an action so mildly embarrassing that we never really talk about it. Egill does, though. 


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Silence of the Grave: An Inspector Erlendur Novel

By Arnaldur Indridason

Book cover of Silence of the Grave: An Inspector Erlendur Novel

Why this book?

I don’t think it is overly ambitious to claim that you can learn a lot about a country from its crime novels. I certainly did, devouring novels by Yrsa Sigurdardóttir, Lilja Sigurdardóttir, Ragnar Jónasson, and the Englishman Quentin Bates. A good crime novel describes not only a place and its people but what makes them tick, what they fear, and what they desire. It’s very hard to pick just one crome novel from so many great ones, but Arnaldur Indridason’s Silence of the Grave won the British Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger in 2005 and also features the British occupation of the country during the war. Plus, it’s a damned good story.  


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