My writing is a product of my reading, so today, on Earth Day, I am pleased to share some of the books that inspired me to write On Time and Water. The theme of the book is, as the title says, time and water, and how all the elements of water that used to change on a geological scale of thousands or millions of years now change in a single human lifetime. Sometimes the issue is called “climate change,” but that is just a term, and it comes nowhere close to expressing how large and serious the issue is. Some people think the phrase was actually coined to downplay the situation. The idea in my book is that this issue is larger than language, bigger than any words we use.
1. The Poetic Edda (aka the Codex Regius; available in various translations)
When I was a university student, I got a summer job at the Institute of Medieval Studies, where the original copy of the Codex Regius was on display every day. This book is the prime source of Nordic mythology, the poems that have inspired Tolkien, Wagner, Borges, and Marvel Comics. I was starstruck when I held it in my hands, and got this deep feeling of time, understanding words written seven hundred years ago. Since the medievalist scholars were bad at marketing, almost no tourists came to see the manuscript. So I spent the summer alone with the Codex Regius. We turned to a new page every day, so I made time fly faster by teaching myself to read the book. I ended up reading large parts of it on twelfth-century vellum, or calfskin. It had a huge influence on me, and I write about it in On Time and Water.
2. The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit
I met Rebecca in Iceland many years ago and got to know her work. I was very inspired by her way of writing. In almost all her books, she weaves personal stories, poetic and political rants, and anecdotes together with interviews and science. I had done something similar in my book Dreamland, but Rebecca’s style was more personal, and she took longer loops on her way. When I met her, I told her that I was inspired to get closer to her method, and she did a hand gesture of a fairy godmother and said, “You may and you are welcome” (so thank you, Rebecca).
3. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
I have always been fascinated by different approaches to narration. Vonnegut, for example, places autobiographical storytelling within larger, often surreal plotlines. One sentence in this book, about the narrator writing an anti-war book, really stuck with me: “‘An anti-war book? Why not write an anti-glacier book instead?’ What he meant, of course, was that there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers.”
Even though Slaughterhouse-Five came out in 1969, before humans knew about global warming, this was an early reminder of how difficult it is to write about something large and important. But I am in the strange situation of writing a pro-glacier book. We have “stopped” glaciers and they are retreating at an alarming rate. But we can of course be hopeful—if we have stopped glaciers, then we can stop wars, and for the amount we spend on wars, we can grow glaciers again.
4. Fixing Climate by Robert Kunzig and Wallace Broecker
An Icelandic scientist gave me this book, which gives good insight into the field of climate science. Wallace, one of the coauthors, was one of the first scientists to warn about global warming as early as 1975. His pioneering research influenced Icelandic scientists, who have found ways to turn carbon dioxide into rock in a power plant close to Reykjavík. Currently, about 10,000 tons are captured each year. Humanity needs to do about one million times better to reach at least 10 gigatons a year. In any case, the solutions to climate change are not just one idea. They are as diverse as our whole economy—technical, social, political, cultural, organic, and scientific—and they apply differently to different places.
5. Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson
This book changed the way I look at metaphors and how language shapes our thoughts and our ability to think. One of the ideas in On Time and Water is that climate change is in a way bigger than language. It deals with the fundaments of everything—all of the life on our planet, our weather systems, the pH of our oceans, everything and everyone we know and love—and this is bigger than language and all of the metaphors we are used to in politics or daily discourse. We can say that we can tackle it with a Manhattan Project, a moon landing, a war effort—but all of these metaphors center a Western perspective or take place on a local or micro level compared to the size of this issue.
6. Waitress in Fall by Kristín Ómarsdottir, translated by Vala Thorodds
Kristín Ómarsdóttir is an exceptional writer and poet. She manages to put ideas and words together in a bizarre, sometimes uncanny, often sensual and surreal way. Her approach to language can be naive, surprising, and unexpectedly deep. She puts together elements that are far from what might come up in my mind or in any writing I can recall. When you are reading an IPCC report or other dry scientific documents, it can be essential to run a few poems through your mind to reset and readjust. In Watermelon Sugar by Richard Brautigan has also provided that necessary reset for me.
7. The Language of the Third Reich by Victor Klemperer, translated by Martin Brady
The diaries of Victor Klemperer (1881–1960) a German Jewish scholar of Romance languages, also influenced my book. His regular diary entries offer insight into the perversion of the German language during the Third Reich. The book reminds us that we are always living in a system with a set language and values, and now, when we are faced with the challenge of global warming, we have to ask what the legacy of industrial, capitalist, and consumerist language will be in the eyes of those that have to live with the consequences.
8. Exterminate All the Brutes by Sven Lindqvist, translated by Joan Tate
This book is an examination of Europe's dark history and the origins of genocide. The question of how “civilized” Europe could start behaving like “savages” lies exactly in the question itself: how Europe had split the world into “savages” and “superior races” since the days of colonialism, with extra input from Darwinism. It was only a matter of time before these practices would be applied in the colonists’ home countries. Sven Lindqvist, like Solnit, gave me an idea of how to approach in an original way issues that thousands of books have handled, to mix personal perspective, travel writing, memories, etc.
9. A Place That Exists Only in Moonlight by Katie Paterson
Katie Paterson is a wonderful Scottish conceptual artist. She deals with time and space in a very special and poetic way, often funny and playful but deep in its simplicity. The book expresses ideas almost in haiku form, as if providing ingredients for a work of art: “A forest / of unread books / growing for a century.” This was the seed for Paterson’s Future Library project, which started in 2014 with the planting of one thousand trees. Each year between 2014 and 2114, one author will contribute a book to the project, but the books will not be read or printed until 2114, when the trees have grown, been harvested, and turned into paper. It’s one of the best experiments in long-term thinking I have seen. It is more vital than ever to connect our actions today to dates like 2114.
10. Bókin um veginn (Lao-tzu's Tao Te Ching, translated by J. Smári and Y. Jóhannesson)
It is strange, but the philosophy put forth in the 1930 Icelandic translation of the Tao is the one that has resonated most with me. When I read translations of the Tao in other languages, it just does not feel the same. I am quite sure this version contains a few misunderstandings, as the text probably went through several languages before eventually ending up in Icelandic, but the language is clear and beautiful. It's strange to be influenced by possible misunderstandings, and it would be interesting to translate the translation itself into other languages so people understand what I mean.
Looking for more writing about the climate crisis? Check out the following:
“Glaciers and Oceans and the Next Hundred Years”: A Conversation with Andri Snær Magnason
“Farewell to the White Giants” by Andri Snær Magnason, translated by Lytton Smith
Global Warnings: Writing on Climate and the Environment
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