Wind-whipped tundras, black sand beaches and giant, volcanic fissures bursting from the earth: Iceland is a landscape that doesn’t so much inspire as demand to be written about. Accordingly, the small Nordic island nation been punching above its weight by producing world-renowned musicians, artists and writers for centuries.
Whether you’re yearning to experience the fjords and mountains or sample the many delights of its beautiful capital Reykjavík – and in truth, Iceland is small enough to combine both in one trip – this reading list will give you a taste for its people, culture and landscapes until you get to board that plane.
Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland by Sarah Moss (2013)
Any good holiday involves spending at least an afternoon daydreaming about how your life could be different – read: infinitely better – if you simply didn’t go home. After a camping trip to Iceland as a student, Sarah Moss clung to the dream of relocating until, years later, she spotted an advert for a position at the University of Iceland.
Names for the Sea is a insightful and often very profound example of the expat memoir that sees the author and academic’s idealistic view of Iceland as a harmonious society upturned by the impact of the 2007 financial crash. Shortly after arriving to start her new life, the IMF intervenes to save Iceland from bankruptcy and Moss's salary, like many others, drops by a third. Political upheaval around the country naturally follows.
Despite the title, this is travel writing that engages directly with Icelandic society – its politics, customs and values – more than its dramatic landscapes, and is all the better for it. The book is also a wry and honest appraisal of middle-class Englishness, and what we learn when reality collides with fantasy.
The Museum of Whales You Will Never See by A. Kendra Greene (2020)
A point of understandable pride for Iceland is the fact it has 265 museums, which is a pretty staggering one for every 1,250 residents. It other words, far too many to squeeze into a long weekend of sightseeing. Instead of trying, you can enjoy this beautifully illustrated ode to the vast range of passions and obsessions that keeps the island unique collection culture going.
Kendra Greene is a writer and artist with a long and illustrious career in museums, making her the perfect guide to a world that speaks directly to Iceland’s gift for storytelling and its unique geological characteristics. Great title, too.