Story Island – a photo essay on Iceland’s love of literature Sophie Butcher and Martin Diegelman explore a country devoted to literature

A photo essay by Sophie Butcher and Martin Diegelman.


I was researching Iceland for an upcoming trip when something caught my attention. It wasn’t the waterfalls, whales or Björk but something more subtle – I kept stumbling on the statistic that one in ten Icelanders will publish a book in their lifetime. My boyfriend and I were enamoured by the idea of a country devoted to literature, so we booked a flight and set out to discover what could possibly inspire so many people to write.

Once we landed, it did not take long for us to find out that the statistic was in fact wrong. Kári Tulinius, an author and editor at Partus Press, traced the origin of this statement back to a book printed in 2003 by Victoria Clark called The Far­Farers. It has since become an internet myth and spiraled out of control, inspiring stories by the BBC, The Guardian and more. However, even if one out of ten Icelanders will not publish a book, the country is home to a disproportionate amount of writers. The written word, and respect for it, seems to be in their blood.

For example, at Christmas it is traditional to give books as gifts and during this period the country experiences the annual Jólabókaflóðið, a Christmas Book Flood. Annually, every Icelander is mailed a catalog called Bókatíðindi, listing the year’s new publications. There is even a television program, Kiljan, devoted entirely to books. This is an island that takes its literature seriously.

Farm near Lon on the east coast of Iceland
Farm near Lon on the east coast of Iceland. Despite Iceland’s small population of 331,380 the average print run for fiction is 1,000 copies – a per capita equivalent of one million in the USA.

Despite their long standing literary tradition, Icelanders are still finding ways to keep the scene fresh and exciting. Recently, small collectives and publishers have started to take shape in Reykjavik. Drawing inspiration from zine culture, many young writers are publishing outside of the island’s two mainstream publishing houses and their self­-bound, hand­made, short-run books are popping up in local bookstores. Readings and community get-togethers are abundant. “We’re back in the ’60s in some way,” says Anton Helgi Jónsson, an award ­winning poet who published his first book when he was 19. “People are seeking something,” he adds. Iceland’s respect toward the written word transcends all age groups.

After a few days of exploring Reykjavik’s literary scene we hopped in our camper van and headed south. Having negotiating our way past tourist buses (Iceland is in the middle of a tourist boom) we began to get a sense of Iceland’s rich history through its barren landscape. We stopped to climb a hill where there was a sign explaining that the vikings ambushed their enemies here (Viking stories are thoroughly documented in Iceland’s historical sagas, some of the most important literature in the country). We drove further and found stacks of rocks where oral tradition instructs travellers to add a stone to bring good luck. Iceland, with its beautiful horses roaming the countryside, and mile after mile of sheep farms, has a rich tradition of storytelling that you seem to encounter even in the most unlikely of places.

Anton Helgi Jónsson, an award-winning poet
Because of the recent emergence of independent publishers and collectives, Anton Helgi Jónsson, an award-winning poet, has become involved in readings and community meetings. Before this photograph was taken Jónsson was practicing a reading he was going to give at an event supporting gay rights. “I feel lucky to be involved at my age,” he says.

We met Oddny Eir, an author and part-­time farmer, in the sheep barn where she often writes. She showed us a homemade desk that fitted between the sheep stalls and told us how she loved the atmosphere and smell of the barn, that it connected her to her writing. “Because we were a very poor nation, composed mainly of sheep farmers, our culture is closely connected to the richness of language – it’s about weather, the sheep, cycles in nature. So as a writer you’re always using words tied to farming.”

Sigríður Jónsdóttir, another farmer who writes in her spare time, showed us a notepad she kept in her kitchen to write on. She explained the history of visas – short poems serving as a cultural landmarks and often unique to a region. “You make visas for fun and when everyone has learnt it, you sing it together with your community. You can also make visas when you’re riding your horse or when you’ve been out with the sheep all day. You gather in a hut in the evening and tell your visa. They’re often about nature and heritage. Being a nation, talking Icelandic, being independent, that’s what’s important.”

The hot springs in Seltún
Tourists visit the hot springs in Seltún. The environment and Iceland’s energy sources are a major concern for many authors whose inspiration lies in their country’s landscape.

Authorship, poetry, storytelling and folklore all seem to come up in daily life and conversation. From the culturally important Icelandic sagas to the locally relevant visas, Icelanders value the written word not only as a way to make a living but as a means of expression and identification. They seem to write because they have to. “I decided that writing is my life, that’s what keeps me going, it’s not the publishing,” says Anton Helgi Jónsson, who is a recipient of a government funded grant for writers.

In a time when everything seems to be going digital, and people express themselves on their smartphones in 140 characters or less, it’s refreshing to see a nation embrace the physical word. My boyfriend and I may not have narrowed down exactly what it is that inspires such creativity on this sparsely inhabited island but we did learn that Icelanders value hard work, tradition and a good story. If there is any more to life, I don’t know it.

Valgerður Þóroddsdóttir in her home in Reykjavik.
Valgerður Þóroddsdóttir in her home in Reykjavik. Þóroddsdóttir, heavily influenced by American zine culture, started the small but influential publishing collective Meðgönguljóð (Pregnancy Poems) in 2012. It has since grown into the well respected Partus Press.
A quiet pasture on the southern tip of Iceland.
A quiet pasture on the southern tip of Iceland.
Oddny Eir is an author and part­-time farmer
Oddny Eir is an author and part­-time farmer who has also worked with Björk on environmental projects such as Biophilia. Eir often writes at her home­made desk in the barn surrounded by sheep. “When I was a child and worked at the farm during lambing season, the experience of life starting was so strong. That was when I first had poetic fevers, I needed to write in a poetic way to get the essence of what was happening,” Eir tells us.
A black sand beach, Reynisfjara, Suðurland.
A black sand beach, Reynisfjara, Suðurland.
Waning northern lights, Vatnajökull Glacier.
Waning northern lights, Vatnajökull Glacier.
One of the many greenhouses in Fludir
One of the many greenhouses in Fludir. Greenhouses are seen as an important symbol for agricultural development for the country. One of Iceland’s best sellers overseas is a coming­-of­-age story called The Greenhouse by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir.
Björn Halldórsson is a young fiction writer
Björn Halldórsson is a young fiction writer and employee of the largest bookstore in Iceland. Unlike the majority of Icelandic authors, Halldórsson saw the opportunity of writing in English while the majority of Icelanders stick to their native tongue. “With our new immigrant communities, I’m looking forward to seeing the first immigrant novel published in Iceland,” he says.
Icelandic horses on a farm in south central Iceland.
Icelandic horses on a farm in south central Iceland. These horses are traditionally indispensable for sheep farming and an iconic part of Icelandic national identity.
A geothermal plant near Bláskógabyggð Iceland.
A geothermal plant near Bláskógabyggð Iceland.
Sigríður Jónsdóttir, a farmer who writes in her spare time
Sigríður Jónsdóttir, a farmer who writes in her spare time, tells us how all her metaphors are inspired by nature. “The root of Icelandic language comes from sheep farming, so I am very connected to the past, to our language and to nature.”
A quiet pasture on the southern tip of Iceland.
A quiet pasture on the southern tip of Iceland.
Ragnar Helgi Ólafsson started Tungli Publishing
Ragnar Helgi Ólafsson started Tungli Publishing and only publishes books during the full moon. The books are published in 69 numbered copies and any unsold copies are destroyed after midnight. This gesture is part of a bigger movement challenging traditional thinking towards literature.
The mountain peaks of Vatnajökull
The mountain peaks of Vatnajökull, the largest glacier in Iceland.
A snowy field in Suðurland.
A snowy field in Suðurland.
Guðrún Eva Mínervudóttir’s first novel came out in 1998
Guðrún Eva Mínervudóttir’s first novel came out in 1998 to critical acclaim. She is currently writing a new novel about a woman that emigrated from Russia who she met and has become friends with at her local greenhouse.
A country full of myths and sagas
As a country full of myths and sagas, elves and mythical creatures are commonly spoken about in Iceland. According to many tales, elves live on tabletop mountains such as this one, Petsurey.

Words: Sophie Butcher

Photography: Martin Diegelman, Sophie Butcher

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