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How Iceland Changed the World: The Big History of a Small Island

Updated: Dec 30, 2022

The Icelandic Roots Book Club for Thursday, January 5, 2023, will feature How Iceland Changed the World: The Big History of a Small Island with author Egill Bjarnason who will join us from Iceland at 1:00 a.m. their time (which is actually January 6)!


By Heather Goodman Lytwyn



Egill Bjarnason was born in the landlocked town of Selfoss, Iceland. His career in journalism began writing for a local newspaper Sunnlenska. He received a master’s degree in social documentation at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he also worked as a teaching assistant in photography and statistics for two years. For a time, he reported on the rest of the world for Icelandic readers, publishing features and photographs from Afghanistan, Uganda, and West Africa, and gave lectures at the University of Iceland. He continues to write for publications such as The New York Times and Lonely Planet,


In an interview on YouTube with Canadian podcaster Alain Guillot, Egill explains that when he started writing articles about Iceland for the Associated Press, he realized there were many stories to tell about his country of birth, and the concept for this book began to surface. His conversational style immediately draws you into the first sentences of his introduction. We picture Egill searching out stories on a 27-gear Mongoose bicycle on the Ring Road that runs right through his hometown. Then imagine him sailing to Greenland, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark summer after summer as the single assistant to Captain Hordur’s whale watching tours.


Those summers would evolve as research for Egill, providing firsthand experience of sailing in all kinds of conditions and witnessing what the founders of Iceland may have seen in their accidental discoveries. It struck him that his country was unique in many ways. No other European country can boast that it knows the names of its first settlers, who arrived 1150 years ago. Current Icelanders are able to trace their ancestry back 36 generations. With a population of only 350,000 and an extremely precise database, as we know from our research in IR, it is not uncommon to discover how many relatives Icelanders have.


Photo of Egill Bjarnason by Hafthor Hreidarsson
Photo of Egill Bjarnason by Hafthor Hreidarsson

What further inspired Egill to write this book was the experience of writing obituaries for famous people for the Associated Press. It occurred to him that there are untold stories about people in Iceland who should be celebrated. For example, the policeman who played a big role as the bodyguard for Bobby Fischer when the American chess grandmaster played against Boris Spassky of the USSR in Reykjavik during the Cold War.


Research revealed other unsung heroes. The book highlights people and events that made an impact. The chapters are organized chronologically beginning in 1100 AD, then to 1750, to 1809, to 1918, to 1945, to 1965, to 1969, to 1980, to the present.


So does How Iceland Changed the World successfully convince the reader of this claim that Iceland altered the globe? Several published authors have praised Egill’s work. Nancy Marie Brown summarizes the scope of the topics he covers “…1000-plus years of history – from the discovery of America to Tolkien’s muse, from the French revolution to the NASA moonwalk, from Israel’s birth to the first woman president – all to display his home island’s mind opening legacy”. Jane Smiley enthusiastically claims his book “…is not only surprising and informative. It is amusing and evocatively animates a place I have been fascinated with for most of my life. Well worth the read!” A.J. Jacobs says that this book “…is a delightful reminder that, when it comes to countries, size doesn’t always matter. His writing is a pleasure to read….He has made sure we will never take Iceland for granted again.”