5 perfect books to read during winter break

The winter solstice brings the shortest day and longest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. It was a great night spent reading.

I have been teaching English and creative writing in snowy Binghamton, NY, for over 40 years—Read, write, review and rate books all the time—so it’s never hard for me to find something to read. Just for selection.

To spare you the same hesitation, I’ve picked five books for the darkest time of the year.

1. Henry David Thoreau, “Lake Walden” (1854)

by Thoreau Lake Walden is America’s most popular nature book, filled with the author’s observations of the woods near Walden Pond in Concord, Mass. Walden begins in July, but Thoreau welcomes winter in some of the book’s best passages.

“The north wind has begun to cool the lake,” wrote Thoreau, as he “went into the winter quarters.” It’s not that he stays at home much.

Most of us wouldn’t be face down “on ice just an inch thick” like Thoreau reportedly did, but we can read about him doing it while keeping warm. Thoreau noticed frozen bubbles, stacked “like a string of beads” or “silver coins pouring out of a bag”. He catalogs – how he loves to catalog! – the color of the pond, from “transparent” to dark green to “opaque and white or gray”. In the winter, he burns pines, rotting stumps, fenugreek, dried leaves, and logs that he drags home when he skates across the pond. Fuel provides him with warmth, cooked food, and company. Thoreau writes: “You can always see a face in the fire.

In winter, he welcomes rare people, such as writer Louisa May Alcott’s father, Bronson. But most of the time he comes across foxes, squirrels, chicks, jays and a striped owl, which he describes as “cat’s winged brother.” Thoreau delights in the sound of ice exploding during thaw and describes the moonlit rescues of hikers he escorted back to the edge of civilization.

Five chilling chapters of Walden create a winter sample collection for those who haven’t read this great book—and for those who come back to it.

No poet sings about winter like award-winning poet and new Englishman Robert Frost. In his great work Stop by the Woods on a Snowy Evening, he pays homage to the solitude of winter:

“Amidst the Forest and the Frozen Lake/The Darkest Evening of the Year.”

Poetry by Robert Frost weighs more than 600 pages. You also come, a beautifully curated selection of youth poems, less than 100.

Both books contain popular midwinter favorites. Even their title evokes the poet’s close association with winter: “In search of the sunset bird in winter”; “A Hillside Thaw” (“Ten million silver lizards out of the snow!”); “Goodbye and keep cool”; “A patch of old snow.”

In “Birches,” Frost writes about tree branches that turn raindrops into ice crystals that melt in the sunlight.

“Crash and avalanche on the snow–”

“Such piles of broken glass to sweep away”

“You would think that the inner dome of heaven had collapsed.”

Frost’s poems are easy to memorize and lovely to read aloud on any blowing wind.

As Frost wrote for all ages, so did Dylan Thomas in A Child’s Christmas in Wales—available in the original Tiffany blue New Directions paperback, exquisitely decorated with illustrations by Ellen Raskin—winter’s poem made to be sung. We can even hear the poet read it aloud on the his 1952 recording.

One doesn’t have to be Welsh to love Thomas’s seaside childhood. People don’t even need to celebrate Christmas.

“One Christmas is like another Christmas,” the poem begins, “that I can never remember if it snowed/six days and six nights when I was 12/or snowed for 12 days/12 night when I was six.”

Italo Calvino combines magic, hyper-fiction, philosophy, danger and love into If on a winter night there was a traveler. It is Calvino’s most enigmatic work, challenging readers’ assumptions about reading and storytelling.

Not exactly a novel, it consists of the first chapter of 10 novels created by 10 imaginary authors. Still winter? a reader may wonder. Is it ever winter?

As Calvino admits, “The only truth I can write down is the moment I’m living.”

Some gardeners spend the winter daydreaming. Others spend it busy planning.

The garden from a hundred seed packs proposes a completely old-fashioned approach—to grow a simple garden with seeds. Author James Fenton explains, “[S]Stupid mind is part of what I’m after: buy a pack of periwinkle seeds and plant them, plant some really tall sunflowers – this is all gardening should do.”

A garden doesn’t need expensive starter plants or even a plan. The big question in life, as with gardens, is: What do I want to plant?

Winter unearths simplicity: the clear black-and-white landscape it presents, the bare landscape. It encourages readers to follow suit by removing themselves from the irrelevant and making room for life. As the famous saying says, “If you choose not to find joy in the snow, you will have less joy in your life but the same amount of snow.”

Besides, as December ends, we turn towards the light.

Liz Rosenbergprofessor of English, general literature and rhetoric, Binghamton University, State University of New York.

This post was reposted from Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read original article.

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