Summer is my least favorite season: I don’t do so well with heat and humidity, which are pretty much the defining characteristics of summer in New York. Meanwhile, stores and office buildings and subway cars are over-air-conditioned in over-compensation, so I feel like I spend my time either sweltering or freezing. Summer has its pleasures, of course: local strawberries and raspberries and blueberries, trips to the beach, white wine, longer days and wonderful morning light, gorgeous sunsets, the way the skyline looks through the haze, free outdoor concerts. But, still, not my favorite season. We’ve had a string of hot days here this past week, and I’ve been mentally escaping by reading (and loving) Adam Gopnik’s Winter. The book is part of the Massey Lecture series, an annual Canadian radio series that’s been going on since 1961, and it’s quite Canadian in a lot of its points of reference: Lawren Harris and Cranston Toller and Loreena McKennitt and Joni Mitchell. But it’s not strictly about Canada, though it’s informed by Gopnik’s having grown up in Montreal. It’s about, well, winter, which is Gopnik’s favorite season, but which he also mostly-convincingly argues is culturally significant and interesting in various ways.

Gopnik uses the five lectures in the book to look at winter from five different angles, or through five different “windows,” as the book’s subtitle puts it. He starts with “Romantic Winter/The Season in Sight,” which is about the winter as both “sweet” and “scary,” “picturesque” and “sublime.” Then he talks about polar exploration in “Radical Winter/The Season in Space.” In “Recuperative Winter/The Season in Spirit” he talks about Christmas as a secular holiday and the things that have shaped it, from Dickens on, and then “Recreational Winter/The Season at Speed” is about winter sports, mostly ice skating and ice hockey. The last section of the book, “Remembering Winter/The Season in Silence,” was for me the weakest: I wasn’t totally convinced by the argument “that winter seems to act as a kind of magical place of memory, a storehouse of things recalled” (180).

But just summarizing the topics of the book doesn’t begin to get at how pleasing it is to read. Gopnik’s writing is smart and allusive and concerned with culture and cities and humanism, and Gopnik nicely ties together his own memories and experiences with larger themes and questions. The big question of the book is, as Gopnik puts it, “why winter, a season long seen as a sign of nature’s withdrawal from grace, has become for us a time of human warmth” (xii). The answer is complicated, but it’s not all philosophical: cheap coal and central heating are a big part of it, as Gopnik recognizes and emphasizes. As a culture, we can only start appreciating winter when we don’t have to suffer through it, when winter isn’t necessarily about cold and hardship and hunger. “Winter’s persona changes with our perception of safety from it — the glass of the window […] is the lens through which modern winter is always seen. The romance of of winter is possible only when we have a warm, secure indoors to retreat to, and winter becomes a season to look at as much as one to live through” (4). So Gopnik gives the example of William Cowper, writing in 1783 about sitting cozily inside by the fire with tea and a newspaper, with the winter world as something pleasing to behold from the warmth of the indoors. But then we also have Coleridge and the other Romantics and the idea of sublime nature, and there’s also lots of interesting stuff about Caspar David Friedrich and other Germans, and Russians too, taking up winter and the love of winter as something that separates their cultures from the French. I love Gopnik’s style and exuberance: at one point when he’s writing about “the eroticism of winter” in Russian literature and culture he says that “it’s all tied up in furs and snows and secrets”; Tchaikovsky’s music is “winter made exquisite” (26, 38).

I liked the Romantic Winter section of the book best, but the rest of the sections all had their excellent bits, too. The Radical Winter section made me want to read more about polar exploration, and was interesting for its idea of a “spatial” winter – the idea of winter “as something up there that’s trying to get here,” as “this Far North thing that charges south and then goes back” (54). The Recuperative Winter section was interesting in its ideas of Christmas as a “profoundly compound festival, marrying not just many pagan holidays but also the two chief kinds of festivals that exist in the world: the reversal festival and the renewal festival,” and for its discussion of the shift in the 1870s from “the domestic Christmas, the Christmas of the heart and the hearth, to the department-store Christmas, the Christmas of the city street” (97, 117). In Recreational Winter there’s stuff about hockey but also about the history of ice skating and spaces for it in the 1800s—like the fact that in Central Park there was originally a “ladies’ pond” for female skaters, but it only lasted about ten years because skating was such a social scene/culturally accepted space for flirtation—everyone wanted to use the main rink instead (147).

And throughout, Gopnik’s own love of winter comes through and enriches the writing. At the very start he talks about realizing, soon after moving to Montreal as a child, that the snow there was different, was “something that would go on for months and envelop a world” (1). And then on the next page there’s this, which is just so lovely:

My heart jumps when I hear a storm predicted, even in the perpetual grisaille of Paris; my smile rises when cold weather is promised, even in forever-forty-something-Fahrenheit New York. Gray skies and December lights are my idea of secret joy, and if there were a heaven, I would expect it to have a lowering violet-gray sky (and I would expect them to spell gray g-r-e-y) and white lights on all the trees and the first flakes just falling, and it would always be December 19 — the best day of the year, school out, stores open late, Christmas a week away. (2)

The strongest bit of the Remembering Winter section of the book, for me, was the part that included Gopnik’s own memories of walking, as a teenager, in the underground city of Montreal in the cold winters. I liked the personal reminiscence but also the larger point he uses the underground city to illustrate: we can be insulated from winter in isolated/isolating ways (e.g. cars) or in more communal ones, and if we choose the latter, winter can bring us together. As mentioned earlier, I don’t quite think that Gopnik’s argument in this section of winter as a special place of memory holds up—or if it does, I think it’s partly a northern-hemisphere/Western world winter phenomenon of how winter is also tied to the turn of the calendar year. Maybe winters stand out in Gopnik’s memories more than other seasons because he loves them more: which he sort of admits near the very end of the book with this:

I realize that these chapters, in the guise of cultural observation and a kind of amateur’s cultural anthropology, are really a composite list of things that I like and that I don’t, like those of a Playmate of earlier vintage: her turn-ons and turn-offs. I hate cars, concussions, hockey violence generally, southern California at Christmas, Carlyle’s politics, postmodern condescension to pre-modern peoples as much as postmodernists hate pre-modern condescension to alien ones…I love Christmas carols, A Christmas Carol, Dickens and Trollope, free-skating and fast-passing Russian and Quebec hockey, and courage of the kind that drove people towards the poles, which I wish I had more of.
Above all, I suppose, I love snow, in all its forms, and though I am sure I would lose this taste if I had to endure enough of it, so far I’ve endured a lot and lost not a bit. (215)

Mmm. This was just the kind of smart and engaged nonfiction I was in the mood for.

4 Responses to “Winter: Five Windows on the Season by Adam Gopnik
House of Anansi Press, 2011”

  1. Vishy Says:

    Beautiful review, Heather! I love the central theme of the book. I liked what you said about summer – about why you didn’t like summer though it had some wonderful qualities. I am not sure which season I like the most. I like winter, but only the moderate ones, not the Siberian style winters which are probably there in Canada. I like summer, but not the hot, humid, sweaty ones of the tropics. I love autumn and spring too, but I think I like autumn more. I have heard and seen the Russian love for winter. The enthusiasm of Russians for winter is so infectious. There is a beautiful Russian movie called ‘The Barber of Siberia’ which depicts it. In case you are interested, you can try watching it. It is interesting that Gopnik’s book talks about how the warmth of the home makes winter enjoyable – it is paradoxical and interesting. I hope Adam Gopnik writes a book like this on other seasons too :) You seem to love Anansi Press :) Thanks for this wonderful review!

  2. Heather Says:

    Vishy, thanks – I really liked this book, and it was fun to write about. And it made me want to read more by Adam Gopnik – he’s written two novels for children, both of which I’ve read, but I’ve only read one of his other books for adults, and he has several.

    I’ve never heard of The Barber of Siberia but I’ll keep an eye out for it :)

  3. Stefanie Says:

    I’m with you, summer pretty much stinks. We get hot and humid here in Minnesota too and huge mosquitoes. the only thing I like about summer are the long hours of daylight, the gardening, and the fresh fruits and veggies from my garden. Those are big things but not enough to make me like summer. After reading you review I have placed the book on my library list. I think I might read it this winter curled up and cozy indoors under a quilt :)

  4. Heather Says:

    Stefanie, yay, I bet this book would make totally satisfying curled-up-under-a-quilt reading! I hope your summer this year is not too hot and humid – here in NY it was supposed to be 97 today and probably was, but it’s been shockingly not disgustingly humid, so it didn’t feel so bad. (Also, I went to the beach in the late afternoon, which I’m sure helped.)

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