Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Winter by Adam Gopnik

Winter: Five Windows on the Season
by Adam Gopnik
House of Anansi Press, 2011
210 pages

Disclaimer: I love winter. So does Adam Gopnik. And I have decided that I'm going to try to stop apologising for this love of mine, as fashionable as complaining about the snow and cold weather is: winter is a wonderful season, and Gopnik spends quite a lot of time validating my fondness of it. If you thought that maybe five lectures and 210 pages was too long to spend talking about winter, you would be wrong. Gopnik manages it and one gets the impression he could have kept going. And this reader - and most readers, I'd wager, even those who have no love of cold and ice - would have been pretty happy to keep following.

Winter is part of the Massey Lectures series, the printed version of the spoken lecture series heard every year on CBC's Ideas. I quite like the idea of reading each of the lecture series, although I haven't gotten very far with this mission and they just keep on piling up (there is a new one every year. How am I supposed to keep up with that?) 

Gopnik's love for this season - this accident of nature, this clockwork shift to ice due to an axial tilt as our planet orbits the sun - is incredibly well-informed. If you look at the tags on this post, you'll get an idea of the sorts of range this book has. He starts with an exploration of the way the way winter has been viewed through the years has shifted, from being a season of bitterness, loss, and hardship, to being a season of warmth, light, and fellowship. He proceeds to an investigation of the polar winter, winter as place, and specifically the draw it held for Victorian explorers. The third lecture is essentially about Christmas, and the place it holds in the Western secular holiday year, as our festival of cold and light. Then there is an extended digression into winter sport, which is mostly about ice hockey, though he spends a serious amount of time looking at the advent and evolution of ice skating period. (Gopnik is a hockey fan, and is quite clear about that, so the entire chapter devoted to expressing his love of the game is not a surprise.) And finally he looks at what it may mean to us to lose winter, either by moving away from it, or by the self-inflicted wound of climate change. Throughout each chapter he is looking at the psychology of winter; that is, what does winter instill in us, culturally, individually? What ideas and thoughts and meanings do we instill into the season? What is winter, exactly, and what has it been?

Books like this that investigate a single idea from so many angles tend to really capture me, particularly if they're done well, and I think this book is. The writing style is very informal - Gopnik's introduction explains that things, as written out, are essentially transcripts of some practice lectures he gave, with a bit of tightening for readability. At times, when a sentence construct felt a little weird, I read it out loud to myself and that fixed the problem. Gopnik is thoughtful, funny, insightful, and relaxed. He circles around particular points and draws his arguments tighter and tighter. He lets the reader in on secrets, he tells us fascinating facts, he laughs at the absurd even as he respects it.

But there was a bit of a thing, and I almost hesitate to even bring it up, because the problem with noting something like this is that, these days, it can be enough for people to pillory the book and the author unfairly. (It can also be enough to earn me the label of "too sensitive" and I hope I don't deserve it in this case, but I am wary of that too.) It was noticeable, and it did bug me, so:

Gopnik is looking a lot at history, and it is a primarily male history. There are not a lot of women in this book. Franny Mendelssohn, sister of the more familiar composer, gets a brief, positive mention. Anna Brownell Jameson, the writer of Winter Studies and Summer Rambles in Canada - her diary, essentially - gets a lot of page time in the first lecture. And that is about it, except for some nameless skaters flirting with men in images of skating in Central Park, affectionate mentions of his wife and daughter, the Snow Queen from Hans Christian Andersen, and then - the throwaway and unnecessary reference that solidified my feeling that maybe Gopnik should have been paying a bit more attention to the issue of gender in his lectures - a Playmate makes a very baffling metaphorical appearance. It's not that the book feels like a frat party, exactly. I don't think Gopnik is generally disrespectful of the female, the feminine, and certainly not of individual women. But I was noticing a lack, and then the Playmate comment made me actually wince. It wasn't offensive on its own, but given the lack of female presence in the book, it took on a bit more of a profile than it should have.

The thing is, history, as written by most, and as enrolled in these lectures by Gopnik, is very heavy on men and very short on women, and these lectures are a look into the history of our relationship with winter. Men feature prominently. Women don't as much, so when they do feature, I'd like it to matter. I'd like it to not be played for laughs. I'd like it to not feel a little bit as though we are the temptresses, the objects of desire, that our only relationship with winter is as it allows us to express our otherwise forbidden sexuality (as in his argument about the social role ice skating fulfilled for women and gay men around the turn of the twentieth century). Given his admiration and respect for Anna Brownell Jameson, I don't actually think Gopnik really does think of women only in this way. Unfortunately the book doesn't quite reflect that.

There is still lots to love about this book, and lots of really excellent things about it. Sure, Gopnik overreaches his point sometimes, or gets a little repetitive as he circles around his argument; but mostly it's well-written, very accessible, entertaining, thought-provoking, funny, gentle, kind. He captures the feeling of winter, particularly in his first chapter and the chapter on Christmas, the awe and wonder and affection and respect that I hold for the season. It is hard for me to know if someone who isn't as fond of winter as I am would be swayed by his argument, but I think it would be pretty difficult not to be touched by it. Recommended, for Canadians especially: we whinge a lot about this season. I don't think it would hurt us to think about it a little more deeply than just complaining about shoveling and cold.


Nan said...

This is a wonderful review. I didn't read every word because I am reading this book right now!! I will come back as soon as I finish, and will read it in its entirety. Great minds, my dear! I love his writing. The very week I began reading the book he had two articles in the New Yorker which were, as always, excellent. One on the Kennedy assassination and the other on baking bread.

Unknown said...

Ha! His interests are certainly very diverse, aren't they? I love that he's a sort of Renaissance man. Do let me know what you think! (It's such a good time of year to read this; I am so excited for winter now.)

Ana S. said...

I've just finished this and I immediately came to read your review :P (I was very curious about what the thing you'd mentioned in your comment would be). I can definitely see what you mean - I had a lot of fun reading Winter, but I often felt alienated from Gopnik because he was oblivious in a way that bordered on the insensitive. The best example I can think of is the chapter about Polar exploration. His point about the there being no account of homosexual love affairs in the explorer's diaries even though they must have happened is a good one, but I was REALLY put off by his casual use of the words "sodomy" and "buggery" rather than a neutral, I don't know, "homosexual sex" or whatever. I don't know if his use of those terms was meant to be joking or what, but they're really loaded, hurtful and some would even say dehumanising terms, and he seems entirely oblivious to this. And even though it's clear that he's not really discussing homosexuality in disapproving terms, the words are still there. It was honestly quite puzzling, and this and other things along the same lines prevented me from REALLY loving the book. Still, a fun read overall, and perfect for the season - I especially enjoyed the chapter about Christmas.

Unknown said...

"I often felt alienated from Gopnik because he was oblivious in a way that bordered on the insensitive"

YES. That is exactly, exactly it. It was baffling, wasn't it?! When he clearly is an intelligent, thoughtful guy, why would he pick the specific, loaded terms he did, as in your example above or with my "Playmate" example? There really wasn't any excuse for it.

Agreed, though - overall enjoyable and interesting, just sadly prevented from being great by something that could have easily been avoided.

Jeanne said...

I wonder if this could help me like the season better. The chapter about sports would be completely lost on me, which is, perhaps, telling.

Unknown said...

Jeanne, I'm not sure the chapter on sports *would* be completely lost on you. It's pretty lyrical and enlightening, at least at points. And even the history of ice hockey is surprisingly interesting (really. I was surprised.) because it talks about the relationship between sport and class right around the time hockey was springing into being in the city of Montreal.

I'd love to see if you come around to a different point of view on the season once you've read this!