Article by A. Kendra Greene

Published by The Wall Street Journal

July 16, 2020

For Eons, Iceland Has Endured Calamity Through Books

When the volcano Eyjafjallaljökull erupted in Iceland in 2010, the curator of the nearby Skógar Folk Museum took with him only one thing. He had 15,000 objects to choose from in the museum, and he paused, surrounded by the personal and material history of a nation. He walked out with a book in his hands.

The great question that has always loomed over Iceland is how anyone has survived there. It is a legacy not of Viking swagger but of literacy. We cannot fully know how Iceland will fare during the current crisis, although its civil sensibility—alert to data and determined to look after everyone—has left the country, six months into the global pandemic, monitoring just 12 cases. We do know that for generations, austere Iceland has had a surprising history of weathering calamity through books. 

Iceland is home to 366,130 people, and when the world could still travel, it was attracting 2 million tourists a year. That is more visitors in a year than the sum total of all the Icelanders who have ever lived. With short growing seasons and minimal natural resources, Iceland had a population that hovered for centuries near 50,000, only reaching six digits in 1926.

Worse, Iceland was periodically gutted by disease and disaster. The black plague killed a third of the island in 1402. Smallpox was just as deadly in 1707. In 1751-58, a famine claimed 6,000 lives, about a 10th of the population. The Laki volcanic eruption in 1783 killed 20% of Icelanders and 80% of their livestock. It affected farmers as far away as Japan and caused crop failures that helped spark the French Revolution. The famine that followed killed another quarter of the Icelandic population. 

This series of events was so devastating that Denmark, not always known for its generosity to its colonies, offered to evacuate the island. The Danish authorities had concluded, not without reason, that Iceland was uninhabitable. 

Yet the Icelanders found ways to survive. Iceland is inhabited only along the edges, its highland heart too capricious and punishing to be livable. It has no metal, hardly any workable clay, lumber more often in the form of driftwood from Siberia than trees grown on its own volcanic soil. For a very long time, it was among the poorest countries in Europe. But Iceland invested a long time ago in language and literacy and books.

Poetry was sung across valleys from one shepherd to another. The island’s famed sagas, and much more, were written out as early as the 12th century. Manuscripts were copied at a prodigious rate. Around 1530, the first printing press on the island was shipped to a Catholic bishop. Catholic clergy were killed when Iceland converted to Protestantism in 1550; the altars of churches were burned. But the printing press was untouched, and afterward, the bishop at Hólar used it to produce the first complete Bible in the Icelandic language.

At least one was distributed to every church on the island. Published in 1584, that Bible was 600 pages long, printed in an edition of 500 books, each one valued at the price of three cows. Every parish in Iceland had to pledge to buy one. A few remain in their original houses of worship. This is the book that the curator of the Skógar museum elected as the only thing to save.

In that same century, Iceland instituted mandatory literacy. By the 17th century, every Icelander was guaranteed the right to an education, with a tutor sent to each farm for a month every year. By the end of the 18th century, Iceland was the only country in the world to have achieved near universal literacy.

In the 19th century, mass emigration reduced the population again, with Icelanders setting sail for destinations such as Brazil, Manitoba and Utah. Valgeir Thorvaldsson of the Icelandic Emigration Center says, “When they boarded the boats, the Icelanders had the heaviest trunks. Because they packed their trunks with books. Not clothes, not shoes. Books. You don’t feel starving or in pain if you have a book.”

This is the wisdom of a country that touts a 100% literacy rate, publishes the most books per capita of any nation and reports that 10% of its citizens will not just write but publish a book in their lifetimes. Iceland refers to itself as a bokathjod, a book nation. 

The curator of the Skógar museum is a native of Iceland’s sparsely populated southern coast, which is raked by fierce winds. He retired from the museum a few years ago but remains in tiny Skógar, population 21, at the foot of the ice-capped volcano. The Bible from 1584 is back in the museum. The ash from the 2010 eruption continues to sift through the air. Thordur Tómasson turned 99 in April and is at home writing his 27th book.

Ms. Greene is the author of “The Museum of Whales You Will Never See: And Other Excursions to Iceland’s Most Unusual Museums” (Penguin).