Letter from Iceland: Browsing through a winter moonscape

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The Independent Culture
KRISTINN runs a record shop in central Reykjavik. Beneath a ceiling papered with rock posters, sulky adolescents shuffle back and forth, flicking through racks jammed with CDs and second-hand albums. Guns'n'Roses crashes in from all sides.

Clad in black jeans and a Malcolm X baseball cap, 23-year-old Kristinn sits by a cash register in the corner of his ill-lit emporium. You would expect to find him leafing indifferently through a heavy metal magazine. Instead, he is peering into a well-thumbed copy of Ulysses.

Icelanders are endearingly bookish. With fewer people than Wandsworth, this island nation in the North Atlantic is a floating monument to the written word. There are 26 bookshops, 42 public libraries, five daily newspapers, 50 publishers, and countless periodicals. Most of the 500 books published every year come out in December, just in time for the Christmas rush.

That is how Kristinn came by Ulysses. From under the counter, he produces a small pile of last year's stocking stuffers: Faulkner, Thomas Mann, a couple of Icelandic novels, three slim volumes of Scandinavian poetry. Shouting over the music, he explains the Icelandic penchant for books: 'No Icelander likes to be told something he doesn't know, so we read to make sure that can't happen.'

Bibliophilia took hold here not long after the first Vikings washed ashore in AD 874. Endless story-telling was one way to forget the volcanic eruptions, the winter dark and the shifting glaciers that render 80 per cent of the country uninhabitable. Written in the 10th and 11th centuries in largely the same language spoken today, the Sagas tell of brave Norsemen battling the elements and each other. They are constantly reread and republished.

In the absence of an architecture or painting tradition, literature flourished as the highest form of artistic achievement. If you had something to say, you put it in verse or prose. After the defeat of illiteracy in the Middle Ages, a healthy readership was guaranteed. Today, the twin peaks of the Icelandic cultural pantheon are the Sagas and Halldor Laxness, winner of the 1955 Nobel Prize for literature.

Icelanders see the world through a pair of reading spectacles; erudition crops up in the most unlikely places. An hour outside Reykjavik, there is a lonely service station set in the sort of moonscape that lured the first United States astronauts here for training. Every so often a car hurtles down the only road through the fields of jagged volcanic rock. Stopping for an overpriced chocolate bar, I fell into conversation with the middle- aged station attendant. He went straight for the jugular. Did I really think Ben Okri was as good as all that? How important was landscape in British fiction? Had I ever met Salman Rushdie?

A week in Iceland can make anyone feel ill-read. Happily, that bookishness is weathering the onslaught from Nintendo and the VCR. Books are still the traditional Christmas gift, and every house in Iceland is said to have a well-stocked library - no mean feat when the new Stephen King paperback costs almost pounds 9. Strolling around Reykjavik, I counted one video store to nine bookshops. Computer games and comics are on the up, but publishers, librarians and booksellers are far from worried. On 23 April, the parade for Halldor Laxness' 90th birthday was thronged by young and old alike.

Icelanders who don't read remain a minority. Kristinn remembers a time when there was no television on Thursday night and only one channel the rest of the week. Though distractions have multiplied, he feels sure that the next generation will carry the torch lit by the medieval authors of the Sagas. 'I gave my 10-year-old cousin two Norwegian novels for his birthday and he sat down and read them right away. Now they're being traded around his school like baseball cards.'