Summer reading lists get all the attention, but with the days getting shorter and the nights getting colder you’ll need something to crack open fireside, that cozy Afghan wrapped around your legs, the warmth of your hot toddy working your bloodstream like a magician working a Vegas showroom.
Here, Five Winter Reads
“The Overcoat” by Nikolai Gogol
In truth, Gogol’s immortal short story, which positions the popular 19th century Russian lit trope “the little man” in the face a coldhearted, crushing bureaucratic system, is most effective with a certain level of Russian studies under the belt. But don’t that dissuade you. Set against the cold of a St. Petersburg winter this story stands up on its own as an enchanting and imaginative rendering of the human condition. As Fyodor Dostoevsky said: “We all came out from Gogol’s ‘Overcoat’.” Or was it his nose?
“To Build a Fire” by Jack London
This quick, highly anthologized tale of an ill-fated man and his dog inching through the Yukon’s treacherous terrain really puts the cold season in perspective. London’s details of the determination of a man at odds with a harsh (−75 °F) winter’s day—“holding the flame of the matches [seventy sulfur matches] clumsily to the bark that would not light readily because his own burning hands were in the way, absorbing most of the flame”—should take some of the discomfort out of scraping off the car windshield in the morning.
“Snow” by Ann Beattie
Winter plays a polyphonous tune. Snow-heavy pine boughs wait to spring into a white flurry of aerial action, while accumulations of salt and dirt climb up the soles of shoes and rust the wheel wells of cars. In Beattie’s “Snow” the lovers’ contrasting memories of a winter spent together in the country reflect their ultimate incompatibility. The story appears in her 1986 collection Where You’ll Find Me, which contains many of the same soft-shiver-in-the-back-of-the-neck type of stories. Overall, a fine collection to thumb through as this year tic-tocs into the next.
Canada by Richard Ford
“First I’ll tell you about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later. The robbery is the more important part, since it served to set my and my sister’s lives on the courses they eventually followed.” Want to keep reading? Of course you do. For a more winter-length read, clocking in at 432 pages, give the Pulitzer Prize-winning, living legend Richard Ford’s latest novel a go. Oh, and reading those first lines over again is normal. In fact, reading most of the lines in the book a few times is normal, according to Andre Dubus III.
Skinny Dip by Carl Hiaasen
And if you’re looking to escape the wintery climes altogether, you can always go the snowbird-reader route. Hiaasen’s brand of farcical crime fiction entertains, transporting readers to a world of skinks, sand, salt water, sunshine, and general human weirdness. Despite the sweeping cast of screwball characters, the character to mind the most in this novel is southern Florida itself. Hiaasen, ever the satirist, loves his home, but his vexations with the lifestyles and politics that pollute its civic and natural environments number high.
What books are on your winter reading list and why?
Links & Resources
“The Overcoat” and the hilariously absurd “The Nose” can be picked up in The Overcoat and Other Stories.
If you’re interested in delving into the cultural framework from which early Russian writers wrote (might be a good wintertime undertaking), see “A History of Russian Literature: From Its Beginnings to 1900” by D.S. Mirsky.
A somewhat recent Carl Hiaasen interview worth reading.