Christopher Hitchens once remarked – or repeated – that: “Everybody does have a book in them, but in most cases that’s where it should stay.” Evidently Iceland doesn’t agree. At least according to a BBC News report that highlights the astonishing literary productivity of this small nation of just under 322,000 people – one in ten of whom will publish a book.
Iceland has its own language and an indigenous literature that goes back to the immensely powerful Icelandic sagas, which are a canonical resource for all Scandinavian literature. Its capital Reykjavik was the fifth to be designated a UNESCO City of Literature, and the first non-English-speaking one, in 2011.
What’s more, this dynamic local publishing industry kicked off well before the advent of Amazon and self-publishing. All those home-produced titles are going out as print. “Almost nowhere in the world are as many titles published per capita as in Iceland,” states the UNESCO citation. “According to Statistics Iceland there are five titles published per every 1,000 Icelanders.” And Reykjavik ‘s own UNESCO website states: “Iceland is often referred to as the Saga Island, and Icelanders have long defined themselves as a literary nation. Literature is without a doubt the strongest aspect of the cultural history of the people.”
You begin to wonder whether Iceland’s treeless barrens weren’t deforested by the appetite for woodpulp rather than the near-Arctic climate. Although, UNESCO adds: “The average print run of fiction is 1.000 copies, which would for example equal a million copies in the USA.” It’s also interesting to speculate what might happen when digital self-publishing comes fully onstream in Iceland. Will literally everyone publish a book?
To believe the BBC report, that wouldn’t be such a bad prospect. The Icelanders themselves speak highly of the quality of their own productivity. But how would it be if this points the way for other, less cultured and sophisticated national communities? Facebook and Twitter might actually have saved us from more than we know by giving everyone freedom to express themselves without forcing more titles on the world. And UNESCO points out that Icelanders appear culturally active to an unprecedented degree: “Surveys show that over half the population attends cultural events of various kinds.”
As a onetime visitor to Iceland, I can offer one other explanation for this huge literary productivity: Up there nudging the Arctic Circle, in an ash desert surrounded by ocean, with daylight down to four to five hours in midwinter, there just isn’t a whole lot else to do but write.