Born in Gimli, Manitoba, Arnason is of Icelandic descent and often writes about the Icelandic community in Canada. He is the son of Baldvin and Gudrun Arnason and the eldest of seven children. He attended the University of Manitoba where he received a B.A. and M.A., and has a Ph.D. from the University of New Brunswick. Arnason co-founded the Journal of Canadian Fiction with John Moss at the University of New Brunswick in 1972.
He was one of the co-founders of Queenston House Press in Winnipeg and has been an editor of Turnstone Press in Winnipeg since 1975. He was chairman of the Literary Press Group and a member of the executive of the Association of Canadian Publishers. He served on the Manitoba Arts Council 1985–1987.
He has taught at the University of Manitoba since 1972 and was the head of the English Department from 1997 to 2006. He was Acting Head of the Department of Icelandic, at the University of Manitoba from 1998 to 2006. His archives are held at University of Manitoba.
- 1980: Marsh Burning –
- 198:1 The Icelanders –
- 1982: Fifty Stories and a Piece Of Advice –
- 1984: The Circus Performers' Bar –
- 1987: Skrag –
- 1989: The Happiest Man in the World and Other Stories –
- 1992: The Pagan Wall –
- 1994: The Dragon and the Dry Goods Princess –
- 1994: The New Icelanders: A North American Community –
- 1995: If Pigs Could Fly –
- 2001: King Jerry –
- 2002: The Demon Lover –
- 2005: The Imagined City: A Literary History Of Winnipeg Edited by David Arnason & Mhari Mackintosh, . ISBN 978-0-88801-298-2 – The Imagined City won both The Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award and The Mary Scorer Book Award for best book by a Manitoba publisher in 2005.
- 2010: Baldur's Song: A Saga –
- "“The fiction that makes us real”: Playful Accreditation in David Arnason's “The Sunfish”", JSSE, Héliane Ventura
- "Icelanders in North America:A Bibliography", Patrick J. Stevens, 17 June 1994
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