Adam Gopnik, Winter: Five Windows On The Season

This year’s Massey Lectures—which tour across Canada next month, including a stop at Edmonton’s Myer Horowitz Theatre on October 21—are delivered by Adam Gopnik, a long-time New Yorker staff writer, essayist, children’s author, Montreal native, and general freewheeling polymath. That kind of pan-curiosity is well suited to his topic, which is broad enough to sustain and even encourage investigation from many angles.

Maybe it’s predictable, then, that Winter: Five Windows on the Season is a bit scattershot. Luckily it’s also piled high with plummy facts and anecdotes, and unified by Gopnik’s narration, which resembles that of a chatty yet supremely knowledgeable museum guide.

He begins with a loose history of the season as it first seeped into general cultural and social thought, and it’s here that Winter shines brightest. Gopnik locates the real beginnings of winter, at least as represented in poetry, music, and art, in the late 18th century. Initially it was tangled up in Romantic thinking, a brutal but awe-inspiring northern antidote to French rationalism. Thanks to inventions like central heating, it slowly evolved into weather that one could safely observe as well as experience. Today, we’ve pretty much tamed winter entirely: one of the reasons we like the snow now is because its blankness is a renewable frontier, ever-ripe for the conquering.

From here, the book investigates winter through different cultural lenses. Gopnik delivers compelling, albeit well-padded, pocket histories of polar exploration, the secularization of Christmas, ice hockey, and the “underground cities” that most Canadian metropolises now have some version of.

Tracing the genesis of an idea that’s now considered commonplace is always a rewarding process, and Gopnik shows the multi-faceted appeal of winter with ease. He also comes up with some brilliant winter-related historical curios. Exhibit A: our conception of Santa Claus is partly inspired by the Greek god Kronos, who’s famous for cutting off his father’s testicles and throwing them into the sea.

Exhibit B: a hilarious painting entitled Johann Goethe Ice-skating in Frankfurt, Germany. In it, a smirking lady is about to nail the famous poet with a snowball.

Gopnik’s eager-amateur approach does, however, strike some strange notes—particularly as it relates to his expectations of how much is already on the radar of the average middlebrow CBC listener. This is entirely subjective, of course, but every time Gopnik assumes his readers are familiar with something (the painter Casper David Friedrich, a Hans Christian Andersen fable called “The Snow Queen”), it was news to me. Conversely, when he would excuse us for not knowing, say, that Frankenstein actually takes place in the Canadian Arctic, I felt a snooty rush of pride at his underestimation.

And the very first cultural reference point that came to my mind, Shakespeare’s beguiling late play The Winter’s Tale? Never mentioned.

Small potatoes, admittedly. And any introduction to someone like Friedrich is better than none. My favourite discovery in the book, bar none, is his 1814 painting The Hunter in the Forest, which gorgeously captures the kind of terrified reverence for winter that I still, after surviving several of Edmonton’s -30ºC varieties, can only imagine.

Any reader of, or listener to, Winter will come away with a similar discovery—be it how game theory relates to hockey, the Dickensian politics of turkey dinners, or secret Inuit meteorites. It’s a good thing, too. After all, everyone needs something to clutch to their chest during those greyest depths of February.

House of Anansi, 272 pp, $22.95, paperback

(review also appeared in Vue Weekly, December 22, 2011)

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