Reading in winter is a different experience

  • Mary Otto. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

For the Valley News
Published: 2/14/2020 10:10:29 PM
Modified: 2/14/2020 10:10:16 PM

Boots, warm jackets, scarves and mittens become a welcome part of my life as the temperature plummets. I look forward to being outdoors for walks, snowshoeing and cross country skiing. Inside on cold days, I’m a fan of the wood stove, wool sweaters and hot drinks. At night I grab a hot water bottle to warm my feet.

What I hadn’t fully recognized until now, however, is that in winter, I read differently.

On vacation in Maine last summer, I had looked forward to the publication of a new book by an author I admired. For me, an earlier work, Landmarks, by the British nature writer Robert Macfarlane, had been both a joyous exploration of the British Isles and a profound meditation on language. I had high hopes for his new Underland and waited for it to reach my local bookstore.

When it arrived, I made a quick stop to pick it up on my way home from driving the grandkid carpool to sailing lessons. I was elated. I wrote in my journal later that morning, “Underland will be a treasure.” But I quickly became impatient. The book was demanding. I jotted in the margin halfway through, “This is repetitive. Why does he care about all these places underground?” Days went on and I stuck with it. Ultimately, though, I skimmed to the end and called it a disappointment. The book went in the bag to take home. I’d figure out what to do with it later.

Looking back at myself as a warm-weather reader, I notice that with challenging books like Underland, more is required of me than I want to put out. Summer’s heat and busyness call for books that engage, whose characters pull me into their issues, their mysteries, their romances, their histories. The new novel I happily gulped down as vacation drew to a close was very different. The Guest Book, by Sarah Blake, made no demands. The story prevailed.

Now, months later, on a recent cold morning in January, I decided to give Underland another chance. The house was quiet and I had more time. With stellar reviews saying Macfarlane’s book was “beautifully written and wise,” I suspected I’d missed something with my haphazard reading during the summer. The author asked for more. My past connection told me he would likely also offer more in return.

Robert Macfarlane writes neither to entertain nor to merely inform; he urges readers to go deeper, to accompany him as he travels, reveals, deliberates, questions. Settled near the fire on that January morning, I was ready: patient and curious, with my pencil poised to star important ideas or to debate them. Now, I could care.

During a segment of the book that I had found challenging last summer, Macfarlane’s exploration of a Yorkshire salt mine, I read slowly. The mine, he explained, is now the home of a laboratory for physicists studying the mysterious “dark matter” of the universe.

I’m neither in love with physics nor able to grasp much about it. But, following along as he described the scene, I became intrigued. The fact is that dark matter can only be explored deep inside the Earth; scientists need that very darkness to see more clearly.

And then I learned that dark matter comprises something over 68% of the universe’s mass — in contrast to the approximately 5% that we can “touch with our hands and witness with our eyes and instruments.” Really? I continued through that long chapter page by page, getting my questions answered. One explanation in particular, about why physicists are researching dark matter in deep places around the world, filled me with awe. We do it, “to further our knowledge and to give life meaning. If we’re not exploring ... we’re just waiting.”

I’m ready to proclaim that the days and weeks of our shivery season have a lot to offer to dedicated bookworms. Reading Underland now has been a vibrant experience. With the right books, winter can offer readers a satisfying spell of depth and intensity. With the right books, it will be spring before we know it.

Mary K. Otto lives in Norwich.

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