Winter: Five Windows on the Season Adam Gopnik. House of Anansi Press, 2011.
Loved the first chapter, on “Romantic Winter.” Approaches being the book on this topic I’ve long been waiting for – eye-opening, though probably won’t end up being my favorite He is a masterful essayist, a great guide to exploring different perspectives on winter. This may be the best guidebook out there to exploring art and literature about winter, along with Bernard Mergen’s “Snow in America.” (Both Gopnik, and Peter Davidson in his “The Idea of North,” seem to cover the U.S. less thoroughly than I would have expected, perhaps because Mergen covered it so effectively already.)
I don’t always fully agree with him some of this statements; as an essayist, he sometimes works in broad strokes. But its fun to see the connections he makes, and he helps me see things in new ways. He is a skilled storyteller who invitingly presents snapshots and debates from the past. He grew up in Canada (one of the countries with the most significant experience of and engagement with winter), which I think is useful in helping shape his view of the topic.
He argues that a pivotal change took place with the development of secure heat during winter. After that point, the possibility of isolating oneself from the challenge of winter cold existed – which opened a space for appreciation of winter. His book focuses mostly on appreciation of winter, appropriately for readers purchasing a book of this sort.
Basically, in each Chapter he begins with the perspective on winter held during a certain era, suggests some key changes that took place. And he eventually connects that to contemporary views of winter. There are a lot of intriguing readings along the way, but he is more focused on exploring a few avenues than on presenting us with a map to the entire territory.
The “Radical Winter” chapter did not move me as much. First of all, as a historian, when a chapter on ‘Romantic’ is followed by one on ‘Radical,’ I expected discussion of political radicalism, fights for equality… which is not at all how Gopnik uses this term. This chapter focused on the fascination people have had with polar exploration.
However, in part since I am not that interested in polar exploration stories myself – though I am much more interested than the average person in reading about winter and cold experiences – I did not enjoy that chapter as much. And wondered a little if he overstated their experience at time; and wondered a lot why he was looking to them as icons of heroism for modern era.
The “Recreational Winter” chapter is enlightening on skating. But the hockey material… let me say that I can definitely understand why a writer who grew up in Canada, and is writing for a Canadian audience, would talk so much about hockey. But too much of it ended up being hockey history and a discussion of the qualities of professional athletes. Which might have more to do with watching hockey playoffs in May and June – than with helping us understand how those who play hockey during Canadian winters think about the experience. I think there is a lot to be said about that.
Some of the insights stuck with me – about heating, or how Dickens expected Christmas to help us recuperate, or how cars shrunk the numbers of people enjoying the public-space winter activity of skating together. Other arguments I found to be too narrow. Overall, though, it belongs amongst the top books to use for sparking one’s thoughts about how we experience winter!