‘Once you embrace your inner winter, you’ll be a happier person.’ That’s how Adam Gopnik, staff writer for The New Yorker, defends a season most aim to escape (see video interview, below). It’s certainly a good reason to try to love it, and his new book Winter makes it easier to do.
In Winter, Gopnik shows how the advent of central heating, double-paned windows, down coats and heated cars has led to a new appreciation of our first ‘modern season.’ Gopnik, who grew up in Montreal, traces a thawing discontent over the past 200-plus year of the cold season through poets, musicians, artists, absurdist explorations and hockey players. He writes, winter has changed ‘from something to survive to something to survey.’
Yes! I’ve long been a winter apologist – and a summer critic – and ‘Winter’ gave me dozens of new ways to appreciate, perhaps even defend, the season more. Here are a few revelations that stood out to me:
1. Snowflakes are, more or less, identical.
In 1988, a cloud scientist named Nancy Knight studied snow crystals from their source – in the clouds – and found when they begin their descent from the skies, they’re pretty much the same. Gopnik puts it, ‘They become more individual as they fall… until at last they touch earth. Then, like us, they melt.’
2. 'Santa Claus' is a Yankee.
New York cartoonist Thomas Nast – the guy who designed the donkey and elephant mascots for the US Democrat and Republican political parties – was the ‘single-greatest image maker who ever lived,’ estimates Gopnik. The red-and-white suit was crafted during the Civil War by Nast, and used a ‘specifically Union deity’ to combat the notion of the South’s pesky chivalry. Maybe the suit should have been blue?
3. The whole polar explorer thing was a little goofy.
Everyone raced for the poles, despite that there was no ‘there’ there – no summit to mount, like Everest. In 1926, an Italian explorer named Nobile simply dropped a hundred pounds of Italian flags across the North Pole by plane – to mark it first. And Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World opens with ‘Polar exploration is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time which has yet been devised.’
4. Ice skating is for flirters.
Gopnik describes the early ice-skating scene – like the days when 30,000 would hit New York City's Great Rink in Central Park over a weekend – as rife with sexual tension. In an age, where men and women had limited opportunities to mingle, particularly in exercise, those who did well were seen like rock stars. Apparently Goethe was a John-Paul-George-and-Ringo of the ice, at least per artist J I Raab’s hilarious portrait (included in the book), with a flock of dames batting eyelashes, and one aiming a snow ball at the poet.
5. World War I soccer game.
Did you know that in 1914, on Christmas, Allied and German troops had a truce to play a soccer game? The sobering effect was troubling to commanders with kill quotas to reach, so it was not repeated the next years.
6. Winter cities are better for walking.
Gopnik writes, ‘Winter cities can become close to ideal cities because, in escaping the cold, they defeat cities’ real enemy – the car,’ allowing necessities like pedestrians and the small store flourish, particularly with underground plans in northern cities of Canada and Scandinavia. In our conversation, Gopnik likened southern cities like Dallas and Houston as ‘looking like a neutron bomb hit them.’ Up north, things follow the ice-wine principle, he writes: ‘compression makes for sweetness.’
7. Winter has a playlist!
One of my favorite aspects of Winter is how Gopnik suggests music for his themes, mostly music I’d never heard before. Here’s a few.
- For sport, get a skater’s waltz, ‘Skating in Central Park,’ by Jon Lewis and the Modern Jazz Quartet.
- First love of winter: Vivaldi’s ‘Winter’ from his Four Seasons (1725), shows new ‘attitude’ to winter.
- To admire hoarfrost in icy blooms on windows: Franz Schubert’s Winterreise, particularly the 11th song ‘Frühlingstraum’.
- For long cold journeys, Harry Somers' North Country, which evokes a journey towards the poles.
- For Christmas: Gopnik loves the carols, for their blurry borders ‘between old and new, medieval and Victorian, contemporary and archaic’; his favorite 'In the Bleak Midwinter'.
- For remembering winter: Joni Mitchell’s ‘River’, a song of a California celeb remembering icy days of Saskatchewan.
8. Hockey (not soccer) is the beautiful game.
Gopnik loves hockey – even confessing the private theme of one of his five chapters was simply ‘chance to talk about hockey.’ No other sport, he claims, rewards 'spatial intelligence' (anticipating what's about to happen) over physical prowess more. (Take Wayne Gretzky.) This is the beautiful game, not soccer, he claims. He writes, 'In soccer, goals are exclamations. But goals in hockey are punctuation - they end sentences that can be traced through phrases to make long chains of meaning.
Sentences made from a game of speed on ice. Thank you winter.