As I’ve said before, our trip of a lifetime was to Iceland. Ruth & I drove the thrilling Ring Road in October, which I now know is the beginning of winter there. We luckily had fine weather the whole time despite early warnings of trouble. I read any book that came out about this island just south of the Arctic Circle and recently read a review of a new one. I bought it. Called How Iceland Changed the World, it was published in 2021. Written by Icelander Egill Bjarnason, the book was rather professorial, but I still liked it and learned a lot from it. It’s basically an entertaining history of this country.
My learning began during the introduction. On my first trip to Iceland, I went to the town of Selfoss to see Iceland’s only geyser and a major waterfall. The tour bus did not linger in Selfoss, which is not too far from Reykjavik. Selfoss is unusual in that it’s an inland town. It is also larger than most Icelandic towns because 8,000 people live there. Egill Bjarnason grew up in Selfoss. He got his professional start there working for its newspaper called Sunnlenska. I did not know that there are 63 towns and cities in Iceland and that most of them are on the coast so that residents can spot approaching ships. The Ring Road goes through most of them, including Selfoss. Most towns have a fish factory, but Selfoss does not. It has a dairy plant instead. The only other town Ruth & I visited that was inland was Egilsstadir, which was as memorable as the unpaved shortcut to it. Egilsstadir is back on the Ring Road. Selfoss has a major bridge, an impressive roundabout, and is on the Olfusa River, Iceland’s largest. I remember seeing all 3 on my first trip there. Ruth and I drove the entire Ring Road together, but I did not know or had forgotten its length, which now surprises me. It is 821 glorious miles long. We spent an entire week circling Iceland, and our favorite word became, “Wow!” I did not know the Ring Road’s length until Bjarnason told or reminded me. I did not know that 35% of people, like Ruth but not me, tend to get seasick. I very much enjoyed trying to understand all the clue like symbols on this book’s cover.
Bjarnason focuses on Iceland’s history from its very beginning. I have read extensively about Iceland so knew a lot about how it came to be. What sets this book apart is its concentration on recent history. There is much in it about the birth of Israel, the Cold War, and gender equality. Iceland did, after all, elect the world’s first female President. The part I most enjoyed reading was Iceland’s considerable contribution to the moon landing. Bjarnason spends an entire chapter on this subject, and it’s the part of Iceland’s history that I most enjoyed reading. I had not recalled, for example, that for a long time the Russians seemed to be winning the race to the moon. The Soviet Union was the first country to launch a satellite, send a human being into space, and conduct the first successful unmanned circumlunar flight.
I hope that If you are interested in Iceland that you will obtain a copy of How Iceland Changed the World and read this fairly short book. The New York Times reviewer A. J. Jacobs was right when he said, “Egill Bjarnason has written a delightful reminder that, when it comes to countries, size doesn’t always matter.”
PS and a little known fact. The Oxford Professor and writer JRR Tolkien never visited Iceland but was fluent in its language. He and his wife employed an Icelandic woman named Arndis to help with childcare and instruct their children. Arndis became a minor celebrity in Iceland when this fact was later discovered. She was in her 80’s at the time.