Cover Image: How Iceland Changed the World

How Iceland Changed the World

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Member Reviews

A wonderfully quirky and entertaining history of Iceland, placing this small country in its global context. Informative and illuminating, accessible and highly readable, I found this an excellent read, never dry or too academic, but nevertheless well-researched and authoritative. I only wish all histories were this enjoyable.
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A great read, even for a local. I learnt new things about the history of Iceland, especially putting Iceland into a global context across the years. :-)
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An entertaining read.  History can be a bit dry but in this case the author focuses on a few people/events to relate the history of Iceland and the impact Iceland has had on the world.  Told with humour, the facts are interesting, the people fascinating and the events are significant.
Iceland is a bit quirky so the style works well.  Recommended read.
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Admittedly I only read this because I went on holiday to Iceland in 2019 and when I was there I was absolutely fascinated by the country. Its rich history and influence on the rest of the world is not widely told so I really enjoyed reading this book. I learnt a lot of new things....and now I want to go back again!
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Take a person, group, or - in this case - country that has rarely featured in mainstream histories of Really Important Stuff, and show how actually this person / group / country was significant. 

I love this formula. It's how you get great histories of women, a lot of the time, or Mark Kurlansky's Basque History of the World. So taking the same approach to Iceland absolutely makes sense, and it really works. 

Bjarnason is coming to this as a journalist, rather than as an academic, and that's apparent in the writing style: it's a bit more chatty, a bit more amused, than your classic history - even an historian that's trying to be really approachable is unlikely to describe an early Icelandic historian as Iceland's first nerd. I loved it: the book is super comfy to read - very engaging, and well-paced. The latter is aided by the fact he's not trying to cover absolutely everything in Iceland's history. Instead he's picked a few key moments - as the title suggests, where Iceland's history has interacted in interesting or significant ways with the wider world - to illuminate the several centuries of Iceland's human habitation. 

For me, I think the first few chapters were the most interesting. I knew the basics about Erik the Red and and Leif Ericsson and their escapades and 'discovery' of North America. Have I heard of Gudrid Thorbjarnardottir? No I haven't. Because patriarchy. Anyway, she's rescued along with a bunch of other castaways by Leif, and then went on a voyage that went to North America, where she gave birth to the first European American. There's a lot in that. So those discoveries are the first chapter - along with the settling of Iceland and Greenland by these Europeans, and how that affected the rest of Europe - and then the second chapter looks at other ways Iceland interacted with medieval Europe. It focuses a lot on the recording of the sagas and how Iceland's parliament functioned, and of course bloody Snorri Sturluson. And then the third chapter is Iceland's volcanoes leading to several years of very, very bad weather and general climatic problems, some of which I'd heard of while others (like the lung problems in England) were completely new. 

Chapters 4-9 are modern history, and most of it's 20th century. This shouldn't be too surprising because even though there's a spectacular amount of evidence about Iceland from earlier than that, especially in comparison to some other places. it still doesn't compare to modern obsessions with record keeping and, of course, our ability to store things durably (not that good quality paper is any defence against half of Copenhagen boring down and destroying the university and its records, no that's not a random example). So there's Iceland's part in WW2 (small but significant) and in "the first of Israel" (through involvement in the UN), and Iceland in the Cold War - focused on Bobby Fischer. 

There were only a few bits that didn't feel like they worked, for me. In particular, discussing NASA"s sending of astronauts to Iceland to 'practice' on lunar-like surfaces is cool, but then a lot of the chapter was actually about the changing landscape thanks to the introduction of an invasive species (which some people happen to like). But this was a rare example of ideas not feeling like they fit together. 

This was an absorbing book that taught me and entertained me and gave me more appreciation of Iceland. Which I suspect means the author can say "job done".
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This was rather delightful - a pleasant spin through the past two centuries of Iceland's history and its impact on/connections with the greater world. Strongest, I think, in its early part, in its treatment of the Sagas and the settling of Greenland and travel to the Americas. More of a casual read than a scholarly treatment.
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With a frivolous fashion, and in quite a quippy style, this book definitely lives with the idea that everything in history is connected, and therefore demands we think of Iceland as some valuable cog, perhaps not quite in the centre of everything but able to spin away in its own fashion, and thus proving more important than first assumed.  Let's face it, if your flight was postponed because of THAT eruption you know that to be true already, but this offers many more instances in its chronological look at the island(s).  So if you're a hundred per cent genned up on Napoleon you will know how he and the Brits fighting caused hunger in Iceland.  If you watch or read Marvel characters you will need to know the names of the historians and archivists who recorded the mythology of the peoples and eventually form the characters you love.  If you're a fan of chess, chasing down some fermented whale meat with Brennivin, or nuclear de-escalation talks, you will know Iceland is a very small key that unlocks a lot of history.  And if you didn't, these pages will teach you that that is the case.

They're excessively readable and light, considering, which I have to put down to the author's journalism background.  In covering sections of time through seemingly spurious subjects (the latter years, from Miss Worlds to now through feminism and female Presidents; the Cold Wars through chess and hosting NASA) the whole story gets brought across in quite wonderfully esoteric fashion.  As a Brit, of course, it really raises an eyebrow in ignoring the Cod Wars (and an opening claim to pacifism ditto), but it generally covers everything from the birth of Israel down with a warm yet authoritative demeanour.  As a result I really liked it.  A strong four stars.
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