Bjarni Thór Pétursson is a 43-year-old civil servant living in Iceland’s capital, Reykjavík. One evening just after Christmas 2022, with no previous interest in being an author, he started writing a short, semi-autobiographical novel about a man of his age, living in Reykjavík, longing for the freedom of youth and re-assessing his past relationships with women.

It was the kind of earnest cri de coeur many sensitive people think about turning into a novel but rarely do. And if they do, they stand almost zero chance of a commercial publisher taking any interest.

Writing after work and on weekends, Pétursson finished his novel by the end of January, when Iceland is shrouded in almost around-the-clock darkness. He sent the manuscript directly to a publisher.

Just over a year later, after a launch attended by more than 100 people, Megir Thú Upplifa (May You Experience) is a hit, the 151-page, $44 hardback selling in bookstores across Iceland.

A delighted Pétursson is now being fêted at readings and parties and is already working on three more novels. He’s making some money—he gets roughly $6 per slim volume sold. “I’d be happy to have sold 100 books,” he tells AIR MAIL. “So I was quite shocked when the publisher said the first print run will be 1,000.... It’s been a wonderful journey.”

In Iceland, it’s relatively easy for first-time authors such as Bjarni Thór Pétursson to get published.

A 1,000-copy print run for a novel may sound modest, but to put it into context, Iceland’s entire population, at 375,000, is barely one-thousandth that of the U.S. So those 1,000 copies are the equivalent of an initial printing of a million in the States—unheard of, even for an established blockbuster author.

Pétursson’s story is actually quite normal in Iceland, arguably the world’s most literate nation. Some 1 in 10 Icelanders have a book published during their lifetime. In the U.S., it’s more like 1 in 5,000, including those with self-published books, which are rare in Iceland. More than a thousand Icelandic books are published each year, and the average Icelander reads more than 2 per month. Unsurprisingly, there are bookstores in every town and in many villages.

Icelandic writers are widely translated, too. Among books readily available in English in the U.S. are the crime novels of Arnaldur Indridason and Yrsa Sigurdardottir, and the more literary works of Audur Ava Ólafsdóttir and Andri Snaer Magnason.

For more context, Iceland is the size of Kentucky but with one-twelfth of the population, a number closer to that of Cleveland, Ohio. Imagine, then, if more than 35,000 people in Cleveland were published authors, and some 20 books a week were being launched, mostly about Cleveland, and furthermore in a rare, ancient language—let’s call it “Clevelandic”—that only Clevelanders know. An Icelandic blockbuster can sell 14,000 hardbacks (14 million scaled up to U.S. proportions).

Though the Digital Revolution has reached Iceland, the country’s bookish traditions remain strong.

Among the many ironies of the Icelandic book scene, a large proportion of new Icelandic titles are whodunits such as Indridason’s and Sigurdardottir’s, even though murder is practically unknown there—on average, the country has one murder a year. In Cleveland, there were 154 homicides last year. There’s far more activity from Iceland’s 30 live volcanoes.

Pétur Már Gudmundsson is a former bookstore assistant who now runs a business, Sigvaldi Books, which exports Icelandic books around the world, especially to university Icelandic-studies departments. Gudmundsson e-mails customers a monthly list, in English, of his favorite new books.

His latest selection, alongside Pétursson’s debut novel, includes Fólkid á Eyrinni, a memoir by the founder of Iceland’s herring-industry museum; a collection of stories by Icelandic rock drummer Sigtryggur Baldursson; and not one but two books—one fiction, one reportage—on a violent robbery on an Icelandic farm in 1827 that was solved by a female sea captain named Thurídur. The narrator in the novel is a dog.

Iceland’s population is closer to that of Cleveland, Ohio. Imagine, then, if more than 35,000 people in Cleveland were published authors, and some 20 books a week were being launched.

Gudmundsson explains Iceland’s extreme book culture as a continuation of the country’s ancient storytelling tradition, which goes back some 800 years, to the Icelandic sagas. The 21-hour-long winter nights are also significant, says the bookseller.

“Darkness is one of the reasons we have such a strong tradition of reading and writing and telling stories,” he says. “People had to find ways of entertaining themselves. It got people together. We had shitty houses up until the mid–19th century. So people would huddle together and read and tell stories.”

Many Icelandic books are translated into English, from crime novels to more literary works.

He also credits the Icelandic language, which includes letters known only in Iceland and which has barely changed for hundreds of years, with promoting a strong sense of identity. “We’re really fond of our language,” says Gudmundsson.

But he argues that it’s the frictionless creative culture that most stimulates the island nation’s bibliophilia.

“When you have an idea for a book—or for music or an artwork—the distance between that idea and it actually getting published or shared with the population is really short … If a fisherman has a novel in him, and it’s a good idea, it could be published next month.”

There are also easily claimed government grants for both authors and publishers, as there are for filmmakers and musicians.

“I think it’s a part of our DNA to tell stories,” says Heidar Ingi Svansson, chairman of the Association of Icelandic Publishers. But he explains that the book phenomenon also goes back to an economic quirk.

“Back in the 1940s, when we became independent from Denmark, our economy was extremely poor, and there was a very strict quota of importing goods. So before Christmas there were very few gifts to buy. But there was no quota on paper. We had printing plants; we had authors. So the tradition of making books and gifting them was born, and it’s grown since. Now we call November and December the Christmas book flood—Jólabókaflóð.”

Svansson goes on to explain that Icelanders are not ignorant of the digital revolution so much as they are indifferent to it, at least where the book industry is concerned: “We virtually skipped the e-book development. They’ve never been big here. And even young people are still reading books when there are so many other forms of entertainment, from games to Netflix. We have that here, like everywhere, but it doesn’t seem to make a lot of difference.”

Based in London and New York, AIR MAIL’s tech columnist, Jonathan Margolis, spent more than two decades as a technology writer for the Financial Times. He is also the author of A Brief History of Tomorrow, a book on the history of futurology