Nine Classics to Read in the Winter
Why is it we only get reading lists during the summer? With its short days and achingly cold nights, winter seems the far better season to pick over neglected bookshelves. But I don’t like to read just any book in the winter. Breezy romances set in SoCal climes? Ech. (Well, for me that kind of book sounds like ech all year round) No, no, no, no, what we need in the winter are books worth settling into. Dense, complicated, nuanced books. The deboned ducks of the Western Canon. If you are uninspired by the latest NYT Bestsellers and sick and tired of the predictable selections of your local book club and all those books about wives, then get your winter going with nine perfect books to suffer through this winter.
Winter is the perfect time to read a nagging Greek classic, and Thucydides’ History is definitely that. It and the History by Herodotus are among the oldest historical accounts we have, but their distance from the present day can make them feel alien. The Landmark Thucydides by Robert B. Strassler (one of several in Strassler’s Landmark series) makes the text vital and tangible through footnotes, photos, and a treasury of maps. Thucydides’ narrative becomes all the more poignant when set alongside images of the actual spears used in battle and maps of the narrow islands and straits where Sparta and Athens clashed. It’s the perfect slow read for a winter evening.
I don’t know about you, but for me, January is not the time to read a book you might describe as “sunny,” either in climate or disposition. Only something like Paradise Lost feels right. The cold-blooded, Gothic poetry and the demonic protagonist makes me feel all warm inside. Dartmouth has a great annotated version that makes this beautiful beast more accessible. You’ll need it, since even Lucifer’s flight from Hell to Earth is drenched in hypnotic lyricism:
The space of seven continu’d Nights he rode
With darkness, thrice the Equinoctial Line
He circl’d, four times cross’d the Carr of Night
From Pole to Pole, traversing each Colure;
On the eighth return’d, and on the Coast averse
From entrance or Cherubic Watch, by stealth
Found unsuspected way.
No other memoir can bring the tingle of sensation back to numbed fingertips better than Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. It’s the ultimate field guide for folks who love privacy and hate the Man. Borne on its pages are the philosophies of every great American antiestablishmentarian group, from Occupy to the Tea Party. Oddly enough, Thoreau’s red-blooded politics mingle well with his sincere glorification of the natural world. To top it off, there are three great chapters on being cold. Only the most jaded urbanite would be unmoved by Thoreau’s descriptions in the chapter, “The Pond in Winter”:
AFTER A STILL winter night I awoke with the impression that some question had been put to me, which I had been endeavoring in vain to answer in my sleep, as what — how — when — where? But there was dawning Nature, in whom all creatures live, looking in at my broad windows with serene and satisfied face, and no question on her lips. I awoke to an answered question, to Nature and daylight. The snow lying deep on the earth dotted with young pines, and the very slope of the hill on which my house is placed, seemed to say, Forward! Nature puts no question and answers none which we mortals ask. She has long ago taken her resolution.
No list of classics to read in the winter is complete without at least one Russian epic, and frankly I can’t imagine there’s much debate. When I read Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago I was brought to tears. It is a miracle of a novel. Written over a 40 year period and published in defiance of Soviet censors in 1957, it feels like it could have come out yesterday. This book is chock full of true love, murder, revenge, and a revolution that changed the world (and that’s just the first 200 pages). Throughout, Pasternak keeps the global sweep of the story grounded in the person of Yuri Zhivago, poet and physician. For me the genius of the book is at the end when you come upon Yuri’s small book of poetry as an epilogue. Each word feels leaden with sorrow as you recall the experiences that inspired them:
As trees and wooden fences
Fade into the gloom,
Alone amid the snowfall
You stand there at the turn.
From your headscarf water
Drips into your sleeves,
And in your hair a dew
Of water droplets gleams.
Snow moistens your lashes,
There’s anguish in your eyes,
And your whole image is
As one – all of a piece.
And with an iron chisel
Dipped in darkest stain,
Upon my heart indelibly
You’re printed and engraved.
This heart preserves forever
The meekness of your traits,
So that it’s no matter
The world’s a cruel place.
And this entire snowy night
We thus divide and share -
To trace a line between us
Is beyond my power.
Yet who are we, whence sprung,
Since out of all these years
Just empty talk remains
When we are gone from here?
It seems wrong to read a book about libraries, imaginary worlds, and labyrinths at any other time than the coldest days of the year. If you want one book to transport you in January and February, Borges’ collection of short stories is it. Don’t be mislead by the colorful cover – or the slim volume – there are more twists and turns on one page of Ficciones than whole books of lesser authors. Take just the first paragraph of his famous story, “The Library of Babel”:
The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries, with vast air shafts between, surrounded by very low railings.From any hexagon the upper or lower stories are visible, interminably. The distribution of the galleries is invariable. Twenty shelves – five long shelves per side – cover all sides except two; their height, which is that of each floor, scarcely exceeds that of an average librarian. One of the free sides gives upon a narrow entrance way, which leads to another gallery, identical to the first and to all the others. To the left and to the right of the entrance way are two miniature rooms. one allows standing room for sleeping; the other, the satisfaction of fecal necessities. Through this section passes the spiral staircase, which plunges down into the abyss and rises up to the heights. In the entrance way hangs a mirror, which faithfully duplicates appearances. People re in the habit of inferring from this mirror that the Library is not infinite (if it really were, why this illusory duplication?); I prefer to dream that the polished surfaces feign and promise infinity…
Any time is a good time for a Bronte, but their books are best on the darkest days. If you had to pick one, Wuthering Heights is it. This book feels like it was birthed on the coldest, windiest night of the year, through teeth clenched so tight they almost cracked. This novel does not guide your emotions on a preset path as if the reader is riding through a carnival’s haunted house. Like the moors on which it is set, Wuthering Heights is raw, odd, and open. Don’t approach it with a closed mind.
Wright’s Native Son isn’t read as much as either Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man–the best known African American novel of pre-Civil Rights era America–or Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy–a novel in the same city, with the same basic plot. This is a shame since it is far more challenging than either. Native Son is anything but safe, and to its last page, it is wholly unpredictable. The 20-year-old hero, Bigger Thomas, is not easily slotted into any stereotypical role of his era or ours. Neither devil nor angel, he is a messy, exasperatingly real human being.
What makes it a great winter read is the vivid descriptions of a hunted man in the cold. Some of these passages will make your teeth chatter:
He turned to the window and put his hands under the upper ledge and lifted; he felt a cold rush of air laden with snow. He heard muffled shouts downstairs and the inside of his stomach glowed white-hot. He ran to the door and locked it and then turned out the light. He groped to the window and climbed into it, feeling again the chilling blast of snowy wind. With his feet upon the bottom ledge, his legs bent under him, his sweaty body shaken by wind, he looked into the snow and tried to see the ground below; but he could not. Then he leaped, headlong, sensing his body twisting in the icy air as he hurtled. His eyes were shut and his hands were clenched as his body turned, sailing through the snow. He was in the air a moment; then he hit. It seemed at first that he hit softly, but the shock of it went through him, up his back to his head and he lay buried in a cold pile of snow, dazed. Snow was in his mouth, eyes, ears; snow was seeping down his back. His hands were wet and cold. Then he felt all of the muscles of his body contract violently, caught in a spasm of reflex action, and at the same time he felt his groin laved with warm water. It was his urine. He had not been able to control the muscles of his hot body against the chilled assault of the wet snow over all his skin.
It is perhaps the most delicious of ironies that the classics of science fiction, previously only available in the most unattractive of yellow-papered, microscopic volumes, are now finally readable thanks to the inventions these books foresaw. Yes, Ender’s Game, Dune, and, of course, the works of Le Guin are now actually legible when you buy electronic versions for your tablet. I highly recommend getting them as ebooks as opposed to the penny paperback versions.
If you are looking for something to dip your toe into with sci-fi, start with Ursula Le Guin. Her The Left Hand of Darkness is a powerful rebuttal to any critic who says science fiction isn’t literature. It is an elegant examination of gender and tradition. Set on a planet called Winter where the native people express a sexual distinction only during monthly periods of fertility, the book considers how we respond to an absence of duality. What if there were no summer, and no gender. How do we react when stark contrasts are absent? The title, which sounds like straight cheese to newbies, is a beautiful expression of this idea is brief, taken from a poem by the native alien people that begins, “Light is the left hand of darkness.”
Haven’t heard of it? You aren’t alone. Of all the famous books that are, as Updike once described Walden, “revered and unread,” The Recognitions may be the most exceptional since it is not even revered. It seems that every writer that discusses Gaddis and his debut opus can’t resist noting how forgotten it is. Post-modernist critic Larry McCaffery included The Recognitions on his list of the 20th century’s greatest books, noting the books was “little read when it appeared” but that it “was a major influence on the young Thomas Pynchon.” The novelist William H. Gass closes his introduction of a recent edition of The Recognitions by quoting its final line: “still spoken of, when it is noted, with high regard, though it is seldom played.”
So what is this book that few people remember and even fewer read? It is a beautiful, challenging novel that is worth your time. Sentence after sentence of prose so elegant they sent me running for a pen to underline them (and I haven’t done that with a book in quite some time). Like his protege Pynchon, this book requires a lot of effort from the reader. williamgaddis.org has very good annotations to help clarify some of the more obscure references. But unlike a book like, say, Ulysses, where I think annotations are necessary to understand the plot, The Recognitions is able to be enjoyed on its own terms. Don’t be frightened by its 940 pages, its reputation, or its obscurity. There is great writing in here that you shouldn’t miss.