The hunt for Salka Valka — how to find seriously obscure books

James Harding
5 min readMay 3, 2021

Whilst on the hunt for interesting reads by Icelandic authors I stumbled across a helpful blog post on a book called Salka Valka, by Haldor Laxness. The blog writer was pretty positive about the novel to say the least, which piqued my curiosity. I found a few more articles of a similar vein and decided that Salka Valka would be a great addition to my newsletter.

I headed straight for Wordery to buy the book. I try to buy from this site whenever I can as it’s a decent independent retailer with a great online experience, but alas they didn’t stock it. Not to worry, I thought, this wasn’t unusual for Wordery, it wasn’t Amazon after all and it couldn’t be expected to have as wide a range.

Speaking of Amazon. I found two copies of the book there. One in Turkish — so that was a no go, and a used hardback copy from the USA currently retailing at $400 dollars. I mean I love writing my newsletter, but this was beyond the pale, and so I turned to Ebay.

Ebay has been a great resource, along with World of Books for tracking down hard to find second hand copies. Their stock is fantastic….or so I thought. But today it failed me. Next stop — Barnes and Noble, Abebooks, Alibris, Indigo…. I think you’re starting to get the idea. I went through every online book store I could find and it was nowhere to be found. You’re probably thinking… what about ‘x’?

Yes. I went there, and no dice.

I lost a number of hours, too many… Searching and searching, refusing to believe that this book couldn’t be found. I mean their was a 1000 reviews on Goodreads so someone surely had a copy! I found other Laxness books in English, but for some reason, not this one. I could have left it there, but I was in too deep and absolutely determined. I even considered just buying that copy on Amazon.

I posted on Twitter and waited a few days, but was ultimately left wanting. I asked friends, family, (Laxness-who?) postmen and barristas, but all I received was mute responses, or uncomfortable queries about why I would want to review a book that couldn’t be found.

I was not perturbed.

My next point of call was libraries. Hundreds of libraries in the UK right? One of them, somewhere, must have a copy. Yes. The British Library offered to scan me a copy for £60+. I was getting somewhere, but this still seemed a lot, and I wasn’t quite sure about the process (the site wasn’t greatly documented). I considered waiting until the pandemic was over and just driving to London to read it. But my newsletter needed to be out in a few weeks, and while I was completely invested in finding this book. I’m not a patient man.

It’s amazing how little time we spend looking past the first page in Google. I work a fair amount with SEO during my day job, and the old adage is that if you want to hide a dead body, hide it on the second page of Google.

But that’s how desperate I was.

I went deep. Too deep. To a page on Google so low that my innocent search terms became degraded by the algorithms and soon pages started offering me Viagra, and webcam parties. But eventually... yes, I saw a site with promise.

It was archive.org. The sort of site that if you knew existed, might be your first place to look, and will be one of mine from now on. Archive.org does what it says on the tin. Digitally scanned copies of millions of textual artefacts have been uploaded, and thankfully, the answer to my prayers was there. Someone from the Library of Bengal in India had scanned and uploaded a copy of Salka Valka in English!!

What were the chances? An English version of an Icelandic book from an Indian library.

I was thrilled. But the journey didn’t quite end there. While not the longest book, it was much too long to sit and read through on my laptop in a badly formatted pdf. The next stage of the plan was to download this pdf and upload it to my Kindle. I knew it could be done. I swear I’d seen it before, and I thought, don’t worry James. This is the final hurdle.

After a brief bit of searching I found the necessary information and downloaded a simple little program that should help convert my pdf into the correct format for Amazon and send it to my Kindle. Funny enough it was called ‘Send to Kindle’.

There are a few choices of formats, .epub and .mobi .azw, .azw3. I went for .azw and managed to transform the copy I had fairly quickly. Next up, just hook this app up to my Kindle account and fire it across…. Hmm something went wrong, no explanation but something definitely wasn’t working. I searched and searched and decided the programme I was using was at fault. Instead I used the ‘email’ to a Kindle service.

This didn’t work either, but at least I knew why. The file size was way too big. Frustrated I went back to searching, tried a few different formats to see if one might be smaller, but these also failed. I became a little overly invested in making it work, and to my dismay I later realised the simplest thing was to plug my kindle into my Mac by USB and port the thing over manually.

Did it work? YUP!

Finally I had the book I had been dreaming of reading for the last week. I was ecstatic, over the moon. The question on everyone lips now….

Was it worth it??

If you haven’t already, subscribe to my newsletter Down To Read and find out for yourself. I have a detailed review of Salka Valka in an edition all about Icelandic authors, along with some other fantastic books. If you’re interested in reading it yourself here is the link to the archive.org page.

Read Salka Valka

--

--

James Harding

Product developer - fan of Japanese authors & good coffee. Check out my newsletter at https://newsletters.downtoread.com