Originally conceived as a series of five lectures, Adam Gopnik's Winter might have been better subtitled: "These are a few of my favourite things".
A deliberately conversational book – he explains how he first delivered each lecture in his living room and strove for the same informal, spoken effect in the written version – it is a most enjoyable, wilfully opinionated, wildly subjective and always interesting take on his lifelong love for the darkest time of the year and all it brings in its wake.
Though Gopnik is a resident of New York, and has also lived in Paris, he was brought up in Montreal, and so knows more about winter than most.
The book opens with his memory of his first snowstorm, in 1967. Mesmerised as snow blanketed the St Lawrence River, he recalls: "I knew that I had crossed over into a new world – and that world was the world of winter."
The effects of that revelation are with him still. Indeed, as each of the chapters here shows, they had a profound effect on his imagination.
An unabashed romantic, Gopnik appears to have taken winter to heart in a way few of us, even in this chilly corner of the planet, can relate to.
When, in his opening pages, he describes the change in attitudes to winter in the west from the early 19th century, as houses became warm and the cold no longer represented a mortal threat to safety, one feels ambivalent. Winter is surely not yet so tame, in these parts and many others, that it can be viewed solely as a metaphor.
And yet, as he traces the spiritual and intellectual history of winter, as found in art, music and literature, from the days of the Romantics and since, he cannot be faulted. From the time of Cowper and Schubert, whose Winterreise, he writes, is "perhaps the first true masterpiece of modern times devoted to the new idea of winter", winter became a tabula rasa on which artists of all sorts, and thinkers too, composed their often radical thoughts.
In his words, "What the winter journey of the modern imagination teaches us is not that God is in the details but that our ability to grasp and discriminate the details gives us something to put in place of God." As the magnificent stormy oils of Turner gave way to the almost naïve art and music of Monet and Debussy, winter was watched, and dissected, and found to offer a world of possibility.
One suspects the true impetus behind Gopnik's subject, however, is another sea change in attitudes to the year's nadir. "We may not be coming to the end of the planet, but we may truly be coming – and sooner than we might expect – to the end of winter as we have known it," he says.
Where once it was something to be understood and explored, now it's an endangered season. In his private crusade to encapsulate what makes winter so magical and memorable, Gopnik flies far and wide, taking entertaining digressions and giant leaps, some more convincing than others. One chapter is devoted entirely and eccentrically to winter sports – notably ice hockey, although it was cheering to see Raeburn's The Skating Minister given a witty nod.
Less quixotically, Gopnik spends a chapter on that band of near-lunatic explorers whose quest for the poles at either end of the earth he clearly admires – men such as Scott and Amundsen who, he believes, were "brave in ways that are hard for us to imagine - never in the long history of human adventure has there been courage so pure, so distilled down".
Yet he acknowledges the futility, and possibly the foolishness, and certainly the pointlessness of their gestures.
Describing the ill-fated journey of Wigtownshire explorer Sir John Ross, who in 1818 was the first to attempt to find the Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific, he sets the scene: "There is still little central heating back home, no electricity, no ironclad ships. Canned food has been invented but the can opener has not, so all the canned food taken along on the first trip has to be opened with an axe and a mallet. That's the early modern nature – pre-technological in many respects, set in the very beginning of the Industrial Revolution – in which these Arctic voyages take place.
"And yet, very coolly – if that's the right word – they set out for the top of the world."
With an almost obligatory and rather unsatisfactory chapter on the complicated meaning of Christmas, past and present, which certainly strained this reader's comprehension and credulity, not least for its partial view of the subject, Gopnik keeps the best for last. His final chapter offers up the crux of his credo, namely that for those who live in the north, winter is not just a physical season but a period of dead time, white space, that adds immeasurable depth to our thoughts and memories, both as individuals and as societies. Without winter, he feelingly writes:"We would be playing life with no flats or sharps, on a piano with no black keys".
It is in this section that a writer who is so attracted to the most bleak and unforgiving time of year reveals his battle with nihilism. At heart this, it transpires, is a book about the meaning behind the universe, and the all too palpable and terrifying lack of it. One of the impressive and unforgettable aspects of this flawed but ingeniously and winningly imperfect work, is Gopnik's struggle, like so many before him, to find meaning enough in humanity's search for meaning. Meaning and, indeed, inspiration.
Nothing encapsulates the exquisite beauty of winter, and our need to identify with it and make sense of it, better than his note on snowflakes which, he tells us, scientists now realise are not each unique, but start life identical. It is in their fall to earth that they begin to resemble their mesmerised observers: "For the final truth about snowflakes is that they become more individual as they fall; that, buffeted by wind and time, they are translated, as if by magic, into ever stranger and more complex patterns, until at last they touch earth. Then, like us, they melt."
Winter: Five Windows On The Season