Reading in winter feels very different then reading in summer. Curling up to read in your most comfortable chair, with fuzzy socks, a big blanket, and a cup of your beverage of choice as day turns quickly to evening feels like the best possible pastime during the cold months.
But what to read? We know what makes a great Beach Read, but what makes a great cold weather book?
In this booklist we’ll try to answer that question, and recommend some great, wintery books along the way!
1. Isolation, and a little bit of snow
One characteristic of a winter read is isolation. In Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, Janina is an older woman who lives in a village in Poland on the border with the Czech Republic. She’s independent, interesting, resilient. Her worldview is based on astrology and the planet, with tart little bromides and observations about life and people. Janina stays in the tiny village during the winter, checking on empty summer cottages and occasionally seeing her neighbors. Then her dogs go missing, and an unlikeable neighbor turns up dead. This is not a mystery, but it is mysterious. Set amid snowy forests.
One by One by Ruth Ware is set in the French Alps, where a former professional skier is now the caretaker of a rental lodge and hosting a retreat for a tech company. One of them is found dead, but they’ve lost power and communication due to an avalanche. Ware is a prolific mystery writer without a series, but with a strong sense of mood and setting. Here the past and present seem to converge, and as the days get colder and colder inside the lodge, there are fewer and fewer guests.
In Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times, Katherine May says “When I started feeling the drag of winter, I began to treat myself like a favored child…. I assumed my needs were reasonable and that my feelings were signals of something important. […] I asked myself: What is this winter all about? I asked myself: What change is coming?” May packs a lot in: Halloween, health, trees, dormice, St. Lucia and Christmas, cold sea swimming, saunas. She explores what happens in rituals and in nature during winter and then applies it as metaphor to her own life. This book is rich and resonant.
2. Read like a kid on a snow day
Katherine May says that she re-reads children’s literature when things in her life are rough. “I often turn to children's books at times like these, when I'm yearning to escape into a world that is beautifully rendered and complex, yet soothingly familiar.” I do this too, most recently reading Abel’s Island by William Steig, a slim middle grade book that’s less well-known these days, despite winning the Newbery award, and also despite being written by Shrek author William Steig. Published in 1978, it’s set in 1908 and Abel, or Abelard Hassam Di Chirico Flint, is a young feckless mouse, in love with his sweet wife and living a life of leisure, when during an afternoon picnic, he’s swept away by a storm. He hauls up on a tiny island in the river. He devises many ways to escape, all of which fail, and ends up spending a cold and snowy winter there alone. But something else happens to Abel there, and it’s wondrous. Filled with Steig’s line drawings, this book is quiet, exciting, and lovely.
I also spent a few evenings reading The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgeson Burnett during one of my own personal winters, though it meant putting aside the stack of grownup books. Mary Lennox is my favorite kind of heroine, orphaned, unlikable and cross. Sent away to her uncle’s, she hears the wind crying – or wuthering – at night. Like May, sometimes I need to read children’s literature to remind myself of magic; here it’s the awakening of a garden – and a little girl – into spring, and health, and vibrancy.
Caught up inside on one of the last big snow days, we were lucky to have a copy of a Brian Selznick novel, thick, with more than 400 pages. My girls had that particular listlessness after days of playing in the snow, and the light through the windows was that peculiar snow bright. I read to all three of them at once, something that hadn’t happened in years. We got through it quickly because Selznick books have many full-page illustrations that tell independent parts of the story. My girls were so quiet, just turning to look as I held up the pictures for them to see.
Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik is a frozen fairytale for grownups. While I don’t often read fantasy, this was a wonderful surprise. Miryem is the daughter of a money lender who takes over management to support her mother. She is efficient and shrewd, clever and kind. She’s overheard by the fairy king that she can turn silver into gold, and he kidnaps her to his icy kingdom. Magical objects, terrible husbands, monsters! Miryem brings together the fairy world and the human world, with help from two young women she meets.
3. Winter Term
Apart from the snow and the isolation, reading in winter also conjures up academic feelings. I’m often inspired to read a classic, something long like The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton, which I read last winter after years of avoiding Wharton. What I found was something very readable and relatable in this story about a family, and their daughter, whose role is to marry and marry well.
I also read the Beowulf translation by Maria Dahvana Headley which is fresh and alive, while keeping the line lengths and alliteration. Her process as a translator and non-specialist was fascinating. I love the monsters in Beowulf.
4. This Winter
As we push through our first snowy days of the season, I have my own list that I'm excited to plow through. It starts with the glittering and glamorous setting of Amor Towles’ The Rules of Civility. I’ve loved his other books, and this one sounds sparkly and crisp, set in Depression-era New York City.
I’m also thinking about John Banville’s Snow - and not just for the title! I’m not sure how I’ve missed this mystery in my own reading, but since we frequently receive new copies, I can tell it’s popular. It’s also just my style – mid-Century Ireland, promising to be a police procedural, with DI St. John Strafford leading an investigation into the death of the parish priest.
There’s also a new book out from Dorthe Nors, a Danish novelist, who dabbles in the experimental. I’ve really liked her short fiction (about winter, incidentally) and this year she’s released a collection of essays called A Line in the World: A Year on the North Sea Coast, which sounds deeply satisfying to me.
I can hardly wait for a long chilly afternoon with a blanket, a mug, and few interruptions.