Book Review: Norse Greenland by Jared Diamond

Norse Greenland by Jared DiamondThis e-book is an excerpt from a longer book by Jared Diamond, Collapse, and deals with medieval Greenland and the Norse settlement there. The subtitle of Norse Greenland is A Controlled Experiment in Collapse.

Norse Greenland: What it is about

For almost 500 years (from around 900 AD to 1400 AD), about 5,000 Europeans, mainly Icelanders of Norwegian ancestry, lived on Greenland, in two settlements, a few hundred miles apart from each other.

Jared Diamond discusses the factors that led to the demise of the Norse society in Greenland. He argues that there is no single factor per sé, but a combination of factors that was important here. For instance, the temperature was mild (relatively speaking) when the settlers arrived, but 400 years later, the temperature had dropped significantly, making it hard to grow enough grass for their cows (who spent 9 months a year indoors, living off hay that was harvested at the end of the short summer). But also, having successfully lived in Greenland for several hundred years, the settlers did not want to change and adapt to their changing environment. For instance, they did not adopt any of the ways of the Inuit, who had much better means of surviving the harsh climate.

Norse Greenland: What I thought

As I have a particular interest in the lives of the Norse in Greenland, I loved this book, soaked it all up. The writing is a little dry, and you need a certain interest in the topic, or in the wider topic of medieval societies, or the collapse of societies in general, in order to appreciate the book.

My interest comes from a novel by Jane Smiley, The Greenlanders (1988), which follows the lives of several generations of Norse Greenlanders while their society is in decline. I loved this novel and have been interested in the topic ever since. Smiley did a lot of research and her novel is based on what was known 30 years ago about the settlements in Greenland. Diamond has used newer research information but from what he describes about the settlements, I think the novel by Smiley is not too far off and still makes an interesting read.

Norse Greenland deals with the Viking expansion over Europe, the discovery of America around 1,000 AD by the Greenlanders, the climate in Greenland, rules of society, influence of Norway, trade with Europe, non-Viking inhabitants in Greenland (by the way, the Inuit were not native, they arrived in Greenland hundreds of years after the Norse did!), geographical issues, lack of resources such as wood and iron.

The book investigates the causes of the collapse of the Norse society in Greenland, and ends with the interesting footnote that the 450 years that the society did survive is still longer than the English-speaking society has survived so far in North-America!

Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)

Number of pages: 113 (ebook)

First published: 2005

I got this: from the Publishers, Penguin, for review, via Netgalley

Genre: non-fiction, history

About Leeswammes
I'm owner and editor at In my free time, I read and review books on my two blogs, Leeswammes' Blog and De Boekblogger.

27 Responses to Book Review: Norse Greenland by Jared Diamond

  1. Suzanne says:

    I am glad you enjoyed it. I have tried reading Collapse but it was too heavy for me; like you said I probably need to be interested in the topics discussed to get through the book.

    • Leeswammes says:

      Suzanne, I think this book, and possibly also *Collapse* are for an audience that is already interested in the topic, as you say. A pity it didn’t work for you.

  2. Harvee says:

    I have read books set in Iceland but not in Greenland. Fascinating!

  3. Laura Caldwell says:

    This sounds fascinating! My library has a copy of the whole book (Collapse) and I may get it out to read this part.

  4. Charlie says:

    Sounds fascinating. How interesting that it’s a book of part of a book – is the full one very long or does it just make a nice book on its own I wonder.

    • Leeswammes says:

      Charlie, the full book is 600 pages. This exerpt does work nicely on its own. It sometimes refers to something that is (obviously) part of a bigger story but it never felt like I was missing out on important insider information.

  5. nrlymrtl says:

    My man and I listened to Collapse a few years ago, and found it to be a little dry, but also brimming full of info if you are into anthropology/history of man. Great study piece if you have the time.

    • Leeswammes says:

      Indeed, nrlymrtl, I agree (from reading this excerpt). I think the full book is a bit too much for me, but I enjoyed this part a lot.

      • nrlymrtl says:

        Have you read his Guns, Germs, & Steel (I probably have that title a little off)? Not as thick as Collapse, and very, very good. I learned that when a zebra bites, it doesn’t let go!

      • Leeswammes says:

        I haven’t read that, but I have wondered whether I should read it. Thanks for the recommendation, nrlymrtl.

  6. Shan says:

    I didn’t realize that this was taken from Collapse. I own it and read it years ago, this sort of stuff fascinates me. I’m glad you enjoyed it, his writing can be dry unless you have a real interest it. This particular topic intrigues me as the Norse did have settlements here in Canada, but none that lasted.

  7. JoV says:

    Hey Judith. I just got to know you are joint winner of Per Petterson “It’s fine by me”! Yes we should read it together and compare notes!

  8. Isi says:

    Well, I didn’t know the book and the topic, but you caught my attention. Perhaps I can start with Collapse, that sounds more “easy” to read since it is a novel.

    • Leeswammes says:

      No, Isi, *Collapse* is not a novel. It’s a longer version of *Norse Greenland*, but then about different countries/societies too. What you * might* want to start with is *The Greenlanders* by Jane Smiley (I think that’s probably what you meant). That is a very interesting book, I thought.

  9. Sounds interesting, as does The Greenlanders. I don’t think I’d be able to say a single sentence on this topic! I’ve been meaning to read this author’s book called Guns, Germs and Steel about how the world developed but haven’t yet. Seems like he chooses really great topics for his books though!

  10. Thank you for being honest in your recommendation! This doesn’t sound like a book I would be interested in, but I’m glad you were with your other lit connection. 🙂

  11. Leslie says:

    I’m listening to Jared Diamond’s new book, The World Until Yesterday, and finding it fascinating. But I agree about his writing style… it’s a bit dry and documentary-like so the reader would need an interest in the subject to stay engaged.

    • Leeswammes says:

      Leslie, it’s good to know that you have the same experience with Diamond. Not sure your book is for me. It depends how heavy it is on politics and war, topics I don’t enjoy reading about.

  12. Pingback: Greenland’s vikings ate seals | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  13. leemalerich says:

    found your blog when “googling” jane smiley and jerard diamond. i wondered if they had ever interacted. finished both books this week, and am haunted by this period in history. shocked that there was an actual burning at the stake and a bride taken back to iceland! smiley’s book is not easy; and diamond’s a little informal for my taste. loved reading them together. the diamond book contains pictures of the farms referred to in smiley’s. cannot get better than that: pictures, an instructional description, and a theatrical one.

    • Leeswammes says:

      Lee, how nice to come across someone else who loves this period and place. I found Smiley’s book fascinating so I was really pleased to come across Diamond’s book. Smiley’s book is quite dense, that’s right, sometimes several years pass on one page, then there are many pages about a few days. I could imagine it all so well! Still, I loved seeing pictures of the farms.

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