Greenland is icy. Iceland is green. This will be on the test.
Some years ago, I spent a summer's work bouncing around on the rutted, muddy roads of western Iceland, looking at some of the most stark, barren, dramatic, and awesomely beautiful scenery in the world, most of it devoid of human life. And when the fog rolls in and the wind howls through the mountains or across a lava flat where not so much as a weed has grown for ten thousand years, it's easy to believe in fairies and trolls.
I loved every minute, hiking across cliffs far above the sea, rounding the base of the volcano Snaefellsjökull, looking at raging whitecaps past a Nordic cathedral in a town called Stykkishólmh, hopping out to a rock above the waterfall Gullfoss, and walking the very stylish streets of Reykjavík, the Earth's northernmost capital.
Ever since, I've been telling people about the wonders of Iceland. Now I can show them Iceland: Land of the Sagas, first published in 1990 and now very handsomely reprinted by Villard.
Iceland, captures vividly much of the look and feel of this quite amazing country and people. The bright and well-informed text is by David Roberts, a contributing editor for Outside magazine and the author of several books. The photos are by Jon Krakauer, a familiar name in Outside and the author of the deservedly bestselling Into Thin Air, about his ascent of Mt. Everest.
The text begins, as it should, by dispelling some of the common misinformation about Iceland. Reykjavík, a fairly quick hoponIcelandair, is closer to New York than San Francisco is. And because of ocean currents, it's warmer than New York in winter. Iceland's population of 250,000 (there are more people than that on my New York City street!) supports the world's largest book production and readership in the world. In addition to Icelandic, everybody speaks English. Everybody. And the stories of the heroes and monsters of Iceland's great literary heritage, "the sagas," are as fresh in the mind as this morning's headlines.
David Roberts stresses this in the book, relating his and Krakauer's wanderings in the island to the sites where mythic events took place: a meadow where the clash of battle still rings, a giant boulder once moved as a test of a hero's strength. It doesn't take a visitor long to feel that the past is very present in Iceland.
Krakauer's photos capture the same thing visually. He likes broad vistas: a lonely farming settlement on a patch of green surrounded by lava fields with bare, mean-looking mountains looming above it; isolated churches seemingly built more for their dramatic location than for convenience; windswept tableland dotted with sheep; geothermal steam bursting from fissures in the barren land.
I wish the book had a map. And I would have liked more pictures that catch Iceland's brilliant summer sunshine, and more of Reykjavík and its handsome hilltop cathedral designed like a pipe organ. But this is an outdoor book, and Iceland has probably the most dramatic outdoors in the world. If you think you know the beauties and mysteries of the planet, Iceland: Land of the Sagas, will show you sights you've never seen before.
Iceland, obviously, is a great place to visit, even in winter, when it's dark most of the day. Next week we'll look at some books that can help you travel there.
Alan Ryan, barnesandnoble.com