|Bara Kristinsdottir for The New York Times|
Standing in the dark outside the Reykjavik public library in the relentless damp chill that comes with a light rain at 40 degrees, I kept trying to zip up my jacket. The charcoal sky was a shade lighter than the inky ocean a few blocks away, but it was noon, not twilight. I had a few minutes to bundle up before an outdoor walking tour on literary Iceland began. As if on cue, the zipper snapped off in my hand.
I could write here, I thought. There is a constant struggle in this place, often larger than a failed zipper, a theme that inspired the 1,000-year-old Icelandic sagas that touch on the nation’s Norwegian and Irish roots and the mythic tales of elves and trolls.
These days, the country is best known as the backdrop for the myths of our day: films like “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” “Interstellar,” “Noah” and “Prometheus.” (Not to mention the TV series “Game of Thrones.”)
But as I talked to people in Reykjavik, the culture of storytelling seemed to be the source of their greatest national pride. The country has a nearly 100 percent literacy rate. Halldor Laxness won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1955, and Unesco declared Reykjavik a City of Literature in 2011, only the fifth in the world. Researchers show that at least 90 percent of Icelanders age 16 or older read at least one book a year just for pleasure, and that the gift most requested by children at Christmas time is a book.