Two New Guidebooks To Iceland

8.12.2009
Words by Ian Watson
Need to buy a guidebook to Iceland? You can choose from Lonely Planet, the Rough Guides, Frommer’s, Insight Guides, and the Bradt Guides. Don’t want to pay? The annually updated Around Iceland is available as a free PDF download from heimur.is/world, and there are tons of free travel advice about Iceland at tripadvisor.com.

But there are still people who think they can write and sell a better guidebook, even while lacking the brand recognition and distribution channels of the mainstream guides. Two new books, both by Icelandic authors, have just come out. Both cost 2.490 ISK (2.241 ISK at Bóksala stúdenta).

Páll Ásgeir Ásgeirsson is a guidebook veteran and has written many books on the Icelandic outdoors. His 95-page, nicely laid-out The Real Iceland claims to tell “the truth about Iceland” and to expose “things not always revealed or obvious to strangers.” It’s in essay format, with no listings or opening hours. It’s written for reading enjoyment rather than reference, and includes a pleasing though fairly conventional selection of photographs. Despite the title, the book focuses on Reykjavík.

The English in the book has a translated feel to it. It’s hard to tell what happened, but I think that the translation was competently done, just not sent for revision and polishing afterwards.

The Real Iceland does try hard to give the inside scoop. It tells us, for example, that “laws in Iceland are meaningless” and that those who own a summer house are just “fleeing from one town to another.” There is much truth in these and other observations, but sometimes they land with a bit of a thud. I wished the book had lingered a bit on them, and tried to unpeel another layer or two of nuance.

Overall, The Real Iceland is a good try and makes for a quick, innocuous read, but I have a hard time justifying spending 2490 ISK on it. If you want hard-hitting essays on modern Iceland, I still recommend Bart Cameron’s Grapevine Guide to Iceland, which came out in 2006 and which I’ve seen remaindered for about 500 ISK.

The cover of Dr. Gunni’s Top 10 Reykjavík and Iceland made me think it was a slapdash product and the title told me little. Inside, I saw that the book is all listings, a paragraph for each one. Then I realised that the whole 180-page book is a series of top-ten lists: top ten museums in Reykjavík, top ten swimming pools, top ten sights in the West Fjords, top ten dates in Icelandic history.

The layout is rather busy and distracting. But when I started reading my opinions brightened. There is one great mystery to this book: not only is the writing good, the English is very good. Nowhere do we learn who is responsible for this—a translator, a proofreader, or perhaps Dr. Gunni himself? Dr. Gunni, by the way, is not a doctor. He’s an Icelandic media personality, among other things a music journalist, and frequent contributor to this very magazine.

The top-ten lists turn out to be fun to read, partly because you can disagree with them. I very much disagree with Dr. Gunni’s choice of the top ten Icelandic DVDs (Cold Fever? Come on!) and I found his choice of books doubtful too. But mostly I liked his opinions. There are a few ads, but just a few. The book tries to be a real guidebook, with accommodations and restaurant advice, and maps of Reykjavík and Iceland on the inside covers. It covers the countryside pretty well. It gives websites, addresses, prices and opening hours. There’s a helpful index.

Not just tourists, but also people who live here will enjoy browsing this book. I came away convinced that the top-ten format can actually work if handled well.
More info:
The Real Iceland
Páll Ásgeir Ásgeirsson, Forlagið (2009), 2.490 ISK
Top 10 Reykjavík and Iceland
Dr. Gunni, Sögur (2009), 2.490 ISK

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