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The Darkest Season
Winter: Five Windows on the Season. Adam Gopnik. Anansi Press. 256 pages; paper, $22.95, audio book, $49.95, eBook, $16.95.
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Adam Gopnik imprinted on winter during some formative years growing up in Montreal. Perhaps, therefore, he selected that seasonal theme when he was invited to deliver five lectures in the Massey Lecture Series in various Canadian venues during October 2011; they were broadcast by the Canadian Broadcasting Company the following month, and also published as this book. The lectures, somewhat like conversational essays, were the product of a year of research on the part of Gopnik while he busied himself at The New Yorker magazine and with other writing.

The lectures must have had visual aids; the book certainly does. It includes sixteen pages of twenty plates, these showing refreshing, lesser-known representations of everything from hoarfrost to icebergs to Thomas Nast’s 1865 seminal portrayal of Santa Claus to ice skating. Actually, ice skating dominates in this collection. The text abounds with references to visual and performing arts, and to the literatures celebrating or describing winter, all mostly western in provenance.

Many readers speaking Indo-European languages, particularly if residing in temperate zones, will take four seasons for granted. The Saami of Lapland, speaking a Finno-Ugric language in the arctic, distinguish eight seasons, six of them covering winter and summer, and two designating spring and fall, suggesting that winter and summer are symmetric and prominent in the calendar. In contrast, the seasons of tropical peoples are fewer, more subtle, and sometimes marked more by degrees of precipitation rather than degrees of temperature. Gopnik claims that the winter we inherited gathered its cultural shape in Europe during a global chilling between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries.

This winter season has also been set up as an argument of sorts with summer. Winter and summer define each other through contrasts: cold against heat, dark against light, bitter against sweet, hard and difficult against soft and easy, inertia against mobility, sheer endurance against self-indulgence, confined discomfort against outdoor pleasure—but wait! What about hockey? Of all the ways of overheating in a frigid weather, Gopnik privileges this sport, more Canadian than any others coming to mind.

In a fashion, winter comes out seeming like an absence of all that’s comfortable. Yet culture provides many comforts just for winter, at least nowadays: the coziness of gathering around the hearth, the more passive indoor acquisitive addictions of eating and reading and listening, and those energy-dissipative outdoor sports. These comforts have come at a cost, but they’re worth it. Winter licenses the hardy to brandish their vigor, and some confess to preferring winter to the softer seasons.

Gopnik’s subject is not winter as a physical fact but rather as a poetic fact—“winter in mind rather than winter in matter.” The subtitle’s “five windows” on the fourth season were dictated by the lecture schedule. Gopnik succumbed to five alliterative chapters: first, romantic winter; second, radical winter; third, recuperative winter; fourth, recreational winter, and fifth, remembering winter.

These chapters, or “thematic notes,” also have subtitles. The subtitle for the fourth, “recreational winter”—“the season at speed”—says it all: ice is slippery and waterways become thoroughfares. In contemporary times, we enjoy hockey, ice skating, skiing, sledding, bobsledding, sleighing, luging, mountaineering, snowmobiling. Oddly, other than hockey, these pastimes foster solitude rather than sociality; and for hockey, incivility would come closer to its associations south of the border.

Backing up, the first thematic note, romantic winter, subtitled “the season in sight,” sets the stage in the nineteenth century, when the season transitioned from being “bleak and bitter to sweet and sublime.” Part of this transition in Europe rested on the sacrifice of woods and wood, the denuding of boreal forests for fields and fuel. Those forests had once been the source of all gathering and hunting, but with increasing reliance on agriculture and a population seeking heat, something had to give. Gopnik calls this tipping point in eighteenth-century England “peak wood”—as evocative an expression as any of...