Reykjavík became the fifth UNESCO City of Literature in August 2011 and was the first non-English speaking city to join the Cities of Literature Network.
Reykjavík is Iceland’s only city with a population of around 120,000 and is set in a dramatic and picturesque setting, providing the perfect home for a City of Literature that is continually influencing and influenced by the world around it.
10 Things to Know About Reykjavík
- 1. Cultural Capital
- Reykjavík is home to nearly all Iceland’s cultural institutions, including the landmark Harpa Reykjavík Concert Hall and Conference Centre and hosts an incredible programme of arts festivals and literary events throughout the year, from the bi-annual Reykjavík International Literature Festival to the Winter Lights Festival.
- 2. Award-Winning Authors
- Reykjavík’s writers have won their fair share of international and Nordic awards: Halldór Laxness was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for “vivid epic power which has renewed the great narrative art of Iceland” in 1955. The House of Halldór Laxness is now a museum dedicated to his memory and can be visited by the public all year round.
Winners of the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize include Thor Vilhjálmsson, Einar Már Gudmundsson and poet Sjón, meaning that since the prize was started in 1962, seven Icelandic authors have had their work publically lauded in this way.
In addition, Icelandic authors Gudrún Helgadóttir, Kristín Steinsdóttir, Ragnheidur Gestsdóttir and Brynhildur Thórarinsdóttir have won the Nordic Children’s Book Prize.
- 3. Festivals
- Literary festivals in Reykjavík are an important part of the city’s annual calendar.
The Reykjavík International Literature Festival has been running biannually since 1985, with the aim of introducing Icelandic readers to international authors. Authors including Kurt Vonnegut, Isabel Allende, J.M. Coetzee, Haruki Murakami, Seamus Heany and Taslima Nasrim have all showcased their work at the festival alongside a regular bevvy of writers from across the Nordic nations.
Reykjavík’s International Festival of Children’s Literature is connected to the International Literature Festival, and has been running every second year since 2001. Known colloquially as the Moorland, the festival is named after the Moorland (‘Vatnsmýri’) where the Nordic House stands and where the festival takes place.
Other literary events in the city are the annual Reykjavík Arts Festival, Reykjavík Culture Night in August, the Winter Lights Festival and the newly-founded Reykjavík Children’s Culture Festival.
- 4. Literary Heritage
- Medieval Icelandic literature is an integral part of Iceland’s cultural heritage, mostly notably the Sagas of the Icelanders (Íslendingasögur) and the Poetic Edda which are read worldwide today and have influenced Western literature throughout history.
The Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies in Reykjavík exists at the heart of Iceland’s rich literary heritage, and was established in 2006, the result of a merging of the Icelandic Language Institute, the University of Iceland Institute of Lexicography, the Árni Magnússon Institute, the Sigurður Nordal Institute, and the Place-Name Institute of Iceland. The aim of the institute lies within the preservation of manuscripts, research and publication.
In 2009, Iceland’s Arnamagnean Manuscript Collection was added to the UNESCO Memory of the World Register.
- 5. Publishing
- Iceland is known for publishing more titles per capita than almost every other country in the world: according to Statistics Iceland, five books are published for every Icelander each year.
There are a wide range of impressive independent publishers within Reykjavík: BF Utgafan–Bokafelagid, Bjartur–Veröld, Codex Publishing, Dimma and Draumsýn, to name but a few.
All are members of the Icelandic Publishers Association. The Icelandic Publishers Association is based in Reykjavík, and is part of the government-funded Icelandic Literature Centre.
The Centre is involved in a number of literary projects, many directly to promote translations of Icelandic literature.
- 6. Literary Community
- Reykjavík’s educational institutions, publishers, bookstores, and literary associations regularly come together to sponsor and organize a number of literary events throughout the year, all of which serve to celebrate the importance of writing, art and culture within the city.
Let’s Read is a nationwide game of reading organised by the Icelandic Literature Centre and Reykjavík City of Literature, taking place over four weeks during Iceland’s colder months. Every Icelander is urged to get reading, no matter their age or occupation.
The city is also home to two universities, Reykjavík University and the University of Iceland, both of which hold regular literary conferences, debates and seminars.
The city’s many bars and bookshops also host a wealth of poetry events, drawing authors and readers together in their love of all things literary.
- 7. The Icelandic Language
- Iceland is home to around 317,000 inhabitants, and, as a relatively remote island, its language hasn’t changes too much over the last 1000 years. Today’s Icelanders are still able to read original medieval texts, going back as far as the ninth century. The Icelandic Language is largely celebrated within the literature of the city as the cornerstone of Icelandic culture. Translation is vital in ensuring that the language is conserved in literature, so that both Iceland and other countries are aware of its thousand-year-old unique history.
The Vigdis Finnbogadottir Institute of Foreign Languages is working to bring to Iceland The World Language Centre, as an international centre of language and culture, aiming to encourage language skills and cultural literacy in Iceland, as well as drawing attention to the importance of the Icelandic language on both a national and international level.
- 8. Library
- Reykjavík City Library is a cultural hive for booklovers and all literary enthusiasts, and is celebrated as the largest public library in Iceland. Its National Collection holds all published material in Iceland and shares a common online library system, as well as a nationwide portal.
Hosting an impressive array of books and research facilities are The National and University Library of Iceland, located in the same building at the University of Iceland campus. It serves as a hub for the conservation and categorization of all Icelandic materials that have been submitted to the libraries, featuring interesting collections such as The Laxness Collection and the Icelandic Women’s History Collection.
For those interested in literature outside of the Icelandic language, The Nordic House Library is home to material in other Nordic languages, and hosts regular literary and cultural events, such as the Reykjavík International Literary Festival and the Reykjavík International Children’s Literature Festival.
- 9. The Book-Flood before Christmas
- In the run up to Christmas in Iceland, new books are published at a higher rate than at any other time of the year and this literary rush has become established tradition for this wonderful country. It is known as the ‘Book-Flood-Before-Christmas’, or ‘jólabokaflód’, because of the flow of books that sweeps through the country at this time.
During these dark cold winter days publishers provide a swathe of great new tomes to tempt readers of every age, and other organisations and companies including bookstores, libraries, cafés, bars, schools, workplaces and the media, all get involved and scramble to promote them, creating a community of people all focused on the publication and celebration of books.
- 10. Walking the Literary City
- The wonderful Reykjavík City Library has been organising literary walking tours in the city since 2003. These tours are a great way of delving into the history of the city and learning fun facts that might visitors and residents alike might not otherwise know.
The Dark Deeds in Reykjavík tour is completely free and runs every summer. Those walking through the city can also listen to readings from Icelandic literature on the streets by scanning a QR-code placed on several city benches. In 2016 an exciting new app is due to be released called Reykjavík Culture Walks, which will allow visitors to take a walk at their own leisure, whilst learning about the city’s writers and books, past and present.