Reykjavik: Literary Cultures


Reykjavik: Literary Cultures

Certain things strike you when you are in a city for the first time. In Reykjavik, I was struck by the amount of books. I found it unusual for such a small linguistic area. It wasn’t simply that there were bookstores (albeit an increasing rarity in some places), but there were also books in every café, restaurant and bar; neatly stacked on shelves, on table-tops, crammed into nooks and crannies. Our favourite brunch place, the Grey Cat on Hverfisgata was practically bursting with books of every kind. The flea-market was dominated by books. Even more unusually they were in Icelandic and not just native texts: Dickens, Harry Potter, every New York Times bestseller, you name it and it was there. Among non-anglophone cities I cannot think of another that has such a predominance of literature, even Paris eschews translations in favour of their native writers. Primary research on the topic revealed the Reykjavik is in fact the only non-english UNESCO City of Literature ( My question then became why?

at the Grey Cat

My first thought on the matter was with ¾ of the year spent in cold darkness story telling would be a good way to bid time away. Moreover, genetics studies in Iceland have revealed that a significant percentage of mitochondrial DNA is Celtic in origin, and everyone knows the Irish weave a good yarn. The Vikings themselves (which constitute a significant proportion of Y-chromosome DNA in Iceland’s populations) have a rich and imaginative mythology. Perhaps it’s a genetically ingrained disposition to story-telling that has left its mark on the population. That still does not explain the physical literature culture. Book making in Iceland dates to around 1,000 CE and the Culture House in Reykjavik has some of the best-preserved examples from this period, notably the Eddas and Sagas. Manuscript production in the period was rampant in Europe following waves of Christianization. These tomes were generally commissioned by aristocratic patrons that favoured Latin. Unusually Iceland has a low production of Latin manuscripts but a high production of vernacular Icelandic manuscripts. The National Museum puts forth this theory. Iceland was a backwater to the Norse empire, but it was stable and comprised of wealthy farmers. As non-aristocrats it is unlikely that these farmers would be versed in Latin, yet they could well afford to patronize manuscript production. What good is a book that no one can read? One can hear them reason.

Icelandic Barnes and Nobles

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