Published October 15, 2010
It is a little difficult to decide which of two ways to describe Sigurður Gylfi Magnússon’s new book ‘Wasteland With Words’. Fifteen of the book’s eighteen chapters are about Iceland from roughly 1800 to 1940, with particular stress on the years from 1870 to 1920. Trained in social history, Sigurður Gylfi focuses on now-classic themes such as childhood, death, literacy, housing, work, settlement patterns and emigration. He uses a lot of examples from the Strandir region, which he has studied in depth.
In this way the book is about the years when Iceland was transformed from a very poor farm-based peasant society into a semi-modern, semi-independent European country with a fishing-based economy.
On the other hand, the book is subtitled ‘A Social History of Iceland’. One chapter (chapter ten) deals with the history of Iceland from 800 to 1800, and two chapters (the final ones) cover 1940 to the present. Including these chapters makes the book into an alternative to the “standard” English- language histories of Iceland, on sale at every bookstore here, that usually trace the island’s history from settlement almost up to the present.
Looked at in this way, ‘Wasteland With Words’ could be seen as a challenge to what we could call the Saga-age view of Icelandic history: the idea (common among tourists and newcomers to Iceland) that understanding the age of settlement is key to understanding the country. ‘Wasteland With Words’ reads like a long, and in my view successful argument that if any period is the key to understanding Iceland today, it’s the Nineteenth century.
As in Sigurður Gylfi’s other writing— most of it available in Icelandic only—he tells the story of Iceland from the bottom up, through examples culled from diaries, newspapers, and the histories of particular families. He avoids discussing the ceremonial and official. He has read an amazing number of Icelandic autobiographies. His writing is fluid, lithe and informal.
The book opened my eyes to the Nineteenth- century roots of some current Icelandic customs. The popularity of summer work for teenagers goes right back to the ubiquity of child labour a hundred years ago. I understand the ambivalent attitude towards dogs in Iceland better now: dogs on farms were the key vector in the spread of hydatid disease (echinococcosis), a revolting and sometimes fatal parasitic infection that afflicted as much as a quarter to a half of Icelanders in the late Nineteenth century. And one reason for the tradition of out-of-wedlock births in Iceland is that until surprisingly recently—well after America freed its slaves—powerless, disenfranchised servants made up 35–40% of the Icelandic population and were not allowed to marry.
More depressingly, the shackles on consumer freedom in Iceland and the near- Soviet feeling to the retail experience here can be traced to the days when trade with Iceland was in the hands of a few Danish merchants. The poor condition of the older housing stock in places like Ísafjörður and downtown Reykjavík is a problem with very old roots. Our relatively low rate of high school graduation today and the delayed development of the Icelandic educational system in the Nineteenth century are two chapters of the same story. Iceland was not the only part of Europe that was impoverished in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but the situation here was unusually bad and unusually slow to improve. Sigurður Gylfi’s book shows how far we have come.
‘Wasteland With Words’ is a very fine introduction to Icelandic history, but I want prospective readers to know in advance that it’s mostly about daily life in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries. My biggest criticism is that the design and print quality is not what one would expect of a forty-dollar book that’s being distributed by the University of Chicago Press. The margins are too big and the print is too small. The photos would be easier to appreciate if they extended to the page edges. Both the ink and the paper are a bit grayish. I doubt that Sigurður Gylfi is making a lot of money off this book. I wonder if it would have gained more readers published simultaneously online, with open access, and on paper, in a cheaper paperback format.