Iceland never had any bookshops between the sixteenth century and the mid-nineteenth. It also had no schools. Yet by the end of the eighteenth century the population was almost entirely literate. Families in farms scattered over an enormous area taught their own children to read—and the Icelanders read a great deal, especially during the long winter months. Aside from religious works, their reading matter consisted primarily of Nordic sagas, copied and recopied over many generations in manuscript books, thousands of them, which now form the principal collections in Iceland’s archives. Iceland therefore provides an example of a society that contradicts everything in my diagram. For three and a half centuries, it had a highly literate population given to reading books, yet it had virtually no printing presses, no bookshops, no libraries, and no schools. An aberration? Perhaps, but the experience of the Icelanders may tell us something about the nature of literary culture throughout Scandinavia and even in other parts of the world, especially in remote rural areas where oral and scribal cultures reinforced each other beyond the range of the printed word.

Robert Darnton, “‘What is the History of Books?’ Revisited” (2007)