My favorite things Iceland

by on July 13, 2013 at 2:14 am in History, The Arts | Permalink

1. Saga: First choice goes to Njal’s Saga.  It’s the clearest and crispest of the lot.

2. Novel, modern: How about Audur Ava Olafsdottir’s The Greenhouse?  This is a boom area.  There are one hundred twenty Icelandic novels translated into German each year [correction of earlier estimate].

3. Popular music: Sigur Ros, Agaetis Byrjun.  This CD has a transcendental and also anthemic sound, even if the group never quite lived up to their initial promise.  Bjork albums I usually find pretentious and I would rather listen to her earlier group The Sugar Cubes.

4. Annual tournament: Ram groping.

5. Sea bird: The puffin, followed by the guillemot.

6. Video: Daniel Tammet learns how to speak Icelandic in a week.  That’s hard.

7. Economist: Erik Brynjolfsson, although I do not believe he was born in Iceland.

8. Movie: Maybe 101 Reyjkavik?  I have yet to see The Deep.

9. Movie, set in: Die Another Day, an underrated Bond movie in my view.

10. Vista: How about Höfn?

I am excited that we are arriving this morning.  And as for the food, don’t forget the glories of skyr.

1 affenkopf July 13, 2013 at 2:56 am

There is more than one Icelandic novel translated into German each day, on average.

I’d like to see a source for that.

2 affenkopf July 13, 2013 at 3:20 am

This paper with data up to 2008 shows much, much lower numbers.

3 prior_approval July 13, 2013 at 6:31 am

Well, Prof. Cowen is an economist of some repute, so of course it is entirely believable that a population of 300,000 people is writing more than quality 365 novels a year worth reading in German, along with all the other novels not worth translating.

Just as believable as many other things written here, that is.

4 sam July 13, 2013 at 9:25 am

Well I suppose they could be translating a backlog of novels.

5 affenkopf July 13, 2013 at 12:44 pm

So now it’s 120 books a year. Still seems pretty high, what’s your source?

6 Peter Schaeffer July 14, 2013 at 12:15 am


Here is another source. See “Icelandic Literature Goes Global”

“A fun fact about the German book market, per Rakel Björnsdóttir, the manager of Fabulous Iceland: around 40% of all books on the German market are translated books from other languages. (Compare this to the English-reading market, in which translations make up roughly 3% of all publications.) Prior to the Frankfurt Book Fair, six to eight Icelandic books were translated and published each year for the German market, which comprises about 100 million readers. But leading up to and following Frankfurt, the number spiked: “230 books from Iceland or on Iceland were published in the German speaking region in relation to the Guest of Honour participation,” Rakel says.”

Note that around 1500 books per year are published in Iceland each year and around 350 are fiction.

7 affenkopf July 14, 2013 at 3:55 am

So the high number was a one year event because of the book fair and is probably down again now.

8 Peter Schaeffer July 14, 2013 at 1:59 pm


That’s my guess as well

9 Chris July 15, 2013 at 2:50 pm

That figure also included books “on Iceland” as well as “from Iceland”.

10 Bill Benzon July 13, 2013 at 5:48 am

Ram groping, sounds like the name of an indie rock band.

11 Joshua Nimocks July 13, 2013 at 7:41 am

Saw Sigur Ros perform at 1am at Bonnaroo one year, anthemic and surreal are two words that come to mind. Tyler, I wonder how much the opacity of their lyrics adds to this quality and how this lack of a language barrier could demystify some of the lyrics for Icelandic speakers?

12 GiT July 13, 2013 at 12:39 pm

Don’t Sigur Ros just use a made up language? Just checked. Some songs are in icelandic, some are in a nonsense language (well, maybe it’s not nonsense, but it’s made-up).

13 Joshua Nimocks July 13, 2013 at 2:20 pm

It’s kind of a mix. All of the vocals (except for one track) on the album Tyler references, Ágætis_byrjun, are in Icelandic.

14 Bjarni M July 13, 2013 at 7:43 am

Welcome to Iceland 🙂 njoy your stay here

15 JasonL July 13, 2013 at 8:29 am

The puffin has too long taken an unjust back seat to the penguin. Undervalued asset. This is not investment advice.

16 Brian July 13, 2013 at 9:21 am

at one point, the Target near my house was carrying Skyr, but that is the only grocer to do so. I have looked for it at every other place and have not been able to find it.

17 Mark D July 13, 2013 at 9:50 am
18 Doug July 13, 2013 at 9:50 am

Agree with everything on Sigur Ros. Incredible musicians (and great people – watch the movie Heima). I think that they just need something…more…to really have them break out. (But then that may kill their appeal).

19 Stephen Cowdery July 13, 2013 at 10:10 am

A few more Icelandic movies that are as good as The Deep and 101 Reykjavik: Jar City, Cold Fever and The Seagull’s Laughter. The Sigur Rós documentary Heima is as good a music film as I have ever seen.

20 Chris Golden July 13, 2013 at 10:33 am

Economist ?
Jon Daniélsson? More insightful as to why we were bound to end up in a mess you won’t get…

Try out : Danielsson – 2000 – The Emperor has no Clothes – Limits to Risk Modelling or
Danielsson, Keating, et al – 2001 – An Academic Response to Basel II

21 Thursday July 13, 2013 at 10:44 am
22 K July 13, 2013 at 10:59 am

To discuss popular music from Iceland wout discussing Of Monsters And Men is surprising to say the least.

23 jb July 13, 2013 at 12:31 pm

I find OM&M have a very mainstream (bland) sound on their studio albums which explains their popularity, though some of their live performances are decent; some very good indie stuff out of Iceland recently (Soley comes to mind from Seabear). Then there is Skuli Sverrisson with an extensive discography (I quite enjoy his Seria for some odd reason).

As far as Sigur Ros, I consider () to be their best–a much more focused work than Agaetis Byrjun.

On another note, I’ve noticed TC links to amazon instead of youtube in his music recs: does he get a cut or something when someone clicks through and buys from MR?

24 Matt Harmon July 13, 2013 at 11:12 am

For music, the current popular acts Of Monsters and Men and Asgeir Trausti are both enjoyable.
I caught, The Deep on the flight back from Reykjavik; solemn and stripped down film with an interesting turn. Jar City is a dark detective movie that plays on the real life genetic research in Iceland. It made Reykjavik look a lot more depressing that it seems to a tourist.
Laxness’ Independent People was the obvious choice for classic Icelandic novel- A deep parable about family life and self reliance with a fair amount of economics.
On food, Icelanders really love their hot dogs. Crunchy onions are a good touch. The street carts are ubiquitous. Lots of lamb on the menus. Different creamy sauces for fish were tasty too.

25 Peter Schaeffer July 13, 2013 at 1:59 pm


In my opinion, the glories of Iceland are not to be found in the cities, including Reykjavík. i would also argue that the food is only OK. Going to Iceland with an appetite is a mistake.

26 CBBB July 15, 2013 at 6:16 am

I remember Athoney Bourdain’s show No Reservations and I recall Iceland was the one destination he had absoluatey nothing good to say about.

27 Peter Schaeffer July 15, 2013 at 1:50 pm


He went to Reykjavík and the Blue Lagoon (according to Wikipedia). Typical thoughtless Iceland tourist itinerary. You need to at least get to Gullfoss and Strokkur. He also went in winter. Another mistake.

28 David Sucher July 13, 2013 at 11:45 am


29 Bjartur July 15, 2013 at 3:52 pm


30 Peter Schaeffer July 13, 2013 at 1:51 pm

Tyler Cowen,

Since you are in Iceland, let me offer some specific advice.

Glymur – Highest waterfall in Iceland. Climb it. The river and meadows on top are beautiful.

Hvalfjörður – I huge fjord on the west side. Stunning and eerie. A gigantic wartime harbor during WWII. Later used for whaling and where a whaling fleet was sabotaged.

Þingvellir – A rift zone separating Europe and North America. Site of the first parliament.

Gullfoss – A massive waterfall near Reykjavík. Really impressive.

Strokkur – The big geyser of Iceland. Geysir is a few feet away, but doesn’t erupt much anymore.

Goðafoss – Huge waterfall in the north. Where Iceland adopted Christianity.

Dettifoss – The largest waterfall in Europe. Overwhelming.

Snæfell – Highest freestanding mountain in Iceland. Climb it. Don’t miss Lagarfljót on the way and see the worm!

Hekla – Climb it if the weather is OK. Warning, Hekla is an active and dangerous volcano.

Blue Lagoon – Not an impressive spa. Fun place to go swimming.

Krafla – Geothermal power plant. The plant is interesting. The volcanic wasteland around it is awesome.

Skógafoss – Neat waterfall on the southern coast.

Skeiðarársandur – The outwash plains on the south coast. Astonishing and deadly (historically, not now).

Vatnajökull – Covers a large portion of the country. Try to see it from many angles. Tours on top are available.

Jökulsárlón – This is better known as the Ice Lagoon. Great by itself, but really amazing views of Vatnajökull. A little bit further up the coast (NE) you can climb one of Vatnajökull fingers.

Reyholt – Home of Snorri Sturluson and where he was murdered. Possibly the first home heated with geothermal power (and the first hot tub).

Akureyri – The only city in the north. The city is OK. The area around it is stunning.

Mývatn – Large and shallow lake in the north. Amazing wildlife (and lots of bugs).

Hofn is also OK, but really just a fishing town in the south. I liked it, but it’s the Iceland version of a mill town.

The above list is just a small subset of what you can see and do in Iceland. I would urge you to get a rent-a-car (SUV) capable of handling rough terrain. The best parts of Iceland are down some very questionable roads. You need to be prepared to drive through water dozens if not hundreds of times. If you have any doubts as to whether your vehicle will make it, cross on foot first.

31 Peter Miles July 13, 2013 at 2:09 pm

Movie, set in:
“No Such Thing” by Hal Hartley. With Sarah Polley, Helen Mirren, and Julie Christie. And an ending that was reused by “The Sopranos”

32 Sammler July 13, 2013 at 2:56 pm

My preferred vista is the end of the Keflavik peninsula. It is an amazing facsimile of the Edge of the World — hard to imagine anyone bothering to sail west from there.

33 Fallibilist July 13, 2013 at 9:20 pm

Novelist: Gunnar Gunnarson

He’s first-rate.

34 Matt July 14, 2013 at 2:18 am

Sigur Ros are pretty good, but Bjork is far better. “Pretentious” is an ad homimen non-criticism of art/music/whatever, that I am surprised that Tyler would resort to.

35 lonely Libertarian July 14, 2013 at 12:02 pm

Amazingly good procedural mysteries come from a really small country…

I loved Jar City – both the book and the movie…

Arnaldur Indridason is very good – and there are others…

36 William July 14, 2013 at 2:08 pm

#3 Sigur Ros captures a lot of what I think is the essence of Iceland. It’s very national music.

37 Enrique Armijo July 14, 2013 at 2:25 pm

Fishmarket easily lives up to the hype. A world-class restaurant. The whale sashimi is one of the best things I’ve ever eaten.

And the lobster soup at Saegreiffin is also amazing.

Sometimes the guidebooks are right.

38 Tyler Cowen July 14, 2013 at 6:49 pm

Lobster soup was awesome, thanks!

39 Mark July 15, 2013 at 12:42 am
40 RPLong July 15, 2013 at 9:11 am

You find Bjork pretentious, but you like Sigur Ros?

41 Kit July 15, 2013 at 10:11 am

I’m glad you liked the lobster soup place. I’d say that their comparative advantage is the soup and not e.g. the whale kebabs. For much better whale, puffin, etc. (their specials vary), try Islenski Barinn at Posthusstraeti 9. It’s a student pub which has excellent food.

Also, Brazilian-Japanese-Icelandic fusion is a thing (e.g. Sushi Samba). For a good lunch, ask about the cheese shop–it’s an unmarked place in the basement of (you guessed it) a cheese shop. They’re only open for lunch and it’s mostly a local crowd. Best cod I’ve had in my life.

42 aaron July 15, 2013 at 1:53 pm

Saw Sigor Ros at the Fox in Detoit, was amazing. Plan on seeing them again when they come in Sept to Meadowbrook.

OMM was very good, but they’re not comparable. Sigur Ros is a phenomon.

This has some interesting groups: 2012 Top Iceland Groups

I like the Retro Stefson ablum. They call it pop/alternative. Kind of reminds me of Jamiroquoi, but very mellow. Tiny bit funky, kind of disco/ 80s. Lots of synthesizer.

43 Bjartur July 15, 2013 at 4:02 pm

Tyler, have you not read Independent People or are you intentionally leaving it off the list? Either possibility is shocking to me, but I might be biased.

44 Bradley Gardner July 15, 2013 at 7:35 pm

Jar City was a good movie, if not a great book. Children was also good, though less memorable. (
I occasionally find the Sugar Cubes brilliant.

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