This will be my sixth year living in a place with winter, and I now know what I didn’t at first: that something about my biology doesn’t enjoy the cold. That the happiness that comes with ease during the warm summer months is harder won during the colder winter ones. That the anxiety and depression I so thoroughly removed from myself long ago tries to seep back in once the snow settles in.
Every year I get stronger. I have gathered the tools I need to survive—the almond oil that drenches my bath every morning, the stair-stepper that keeps me active when it's too cold to go out on a weeknight, the handheld steam room that keeps my lungs warm and moisturized, the down coat that goes down to my toes and the cashmere socks that go up to my thighs — and I have learned to find refuge in our coldest season.
Two years ago, my husband and I skied-in to a hut outside of Telluride for the Christmas weekend. The Patagonia-down-jacket-clad guests congregated around the fire, laughing at the enormous sweater and scarf I had backpacked-in to wear at the cabin. “You seem like someone who likes to be cozy,” one of them ventured to guess, my scarf so large it nearly enveloped my head.
My husband laughed hard — as though it were the most accurate thing anyone has ever said about me — and now he repeats that phrase as if it were my mantra. Indeed, it is. I have determined that coziness is the salve for winter. That with a big enough sweater to keep warm against the cold, winter can be one of our most magical seasons.
This winter I have planned my coziness in advance — planning painting nights with friends and booking staycations in the woods where we can Nordic ski during the day and read by the fire at night — and I’ve planned a stack of books best suited to bringing out the most magical elements of the season. Here are a few of the ones I’ll be reading this winter.
If you want to feel the magic of the season
Latitudes of Longing tells a story of India in four locations — Islands, Faultline, Valley, Snow Desert — each thoroughly dipped in the sort of magical realism that settles into your bones and shrouds you in gold dust.
The parts that take place in winter form a sort of mythology — with a Tibetan princess who becomes a bear after she dips herself in a hot spring, a geologist who finds his father’s ghost at the bottom of a snow cave, and a girl who is born from the tears of her father after his family is swept away by a landslide. The tear woman is called Bagmati, and this is how her husband introduces her to winter:
“One morning, as they stand over a giant block of jade-colored ice, he tells her a secret. Somewhere below lies the heart of the Himalayas — a grain of sand hidden in the block of ice below their feet. The oceans feared the entire earth would turn into land, so the jade sea leaped up to capture the grain and froze the instant it did.
“Bagmati holds on to her husband’s hand and peers below into its glassy depths. So many fractures, fissures, and faultlines running through it. She puts her ear against the glacier's heaving chest. A faint rhythm runs through the ice. From the ice, it leaps to her body. It flows into her ears, flooding through her to drown out her own heartbeat. Like the ocean, Bagmati’s body explodes with the heartbeats of a million sea creatures.”
I’ve never been so in love with a book.
If you want to sink into the beauty of it all
This book effectively erased my winter anxiety and made me fall in love with the way icicles drip from the eaves of my home; the way the forests fall under a spell, the trees hushed and asleep beneath their blanket of snow; the way the world becomes cloaked with white, a blank canvas that adds space to our minds.
Not only is Migrations a literary novel of the sort that makes winter feel beautiful, but it uses outward allegory (a naturalist looking for the last remaining birds and a sea captain looking for the last remaining fish, both on a fishing vessel in the arctic) to explain the deeper truths of what they’re really searching for — which slowly get revealed throughout the book. I loved curling into this one.
If you want to feel warm and cozy
Katherine May speaks of darker times with a sort of nostalgia — mentioning them only as a means of describing how she fell in love with dough or came to be submerged by the blue waters of Iceland. It is with this lens that she falls in love with winter — finding a deepening of the season in Finnish sauna rituals, early morning visits to Stonehenge, and swims in the winter sea.
As someone who now winters, this book has become my retreat, reminding me of all the joys that can be found nestled within the season if only I take refuge in its arms: Coloring with color pencils (the good kind that are “densely pigmented and waxy”); enjoying the comfort and nourishment of rich, white foods (no more vegetables, her doctor recommends), and allowing myself the leisure of getting out of bed when I awake 3 a.m. to enjoy the twilit solitude of “the watch.”
“This is the season of ghosts,” she tells us. “Their pale forms are invisible in bright sunlight. Winter makes them clear again.”
If you want to feel deeply peaceful
One of the reasons I used to hate winter, I discovered in my adulthood, is that my husband would always take me out skiing during a blizzard. I learned that I don’t like being outside in a blizzard and I don’t like sitting on a chairlift in the cold. That’s when I discovered Nordic skiing.
On those silent adventures — carving through the trees on the sunniest of winter days, warm from the exertion of gliding my skis through the woods — there is a deep quiet. There are no loud chairlifts whirring in the background. No large crowds to avoid. There is no sacrifice of my financial wellbeing upon the altar of lift tickets and overpriced French fries. Just a ski out into the quiet and a cordial in a flask.
My husband and I have planned a few trips to Nordic ski destinations this winter and this book is what we plan to listen to on the way. Norwegian explorer Erling Kagge spent fifty days walking solo across Antarctica in 1993, and though my brief jaunts are not quite as arduous, an account of the silence he found across that expanse of snow sounds like a soothing remedy for the season — and one I will gladly tuck away for later.
If you want to get drawn into the fairytale
I never read The Golden Compass growing up, but I was swept away when it was adapted into a series for HBO. The crushed velvet and the golden elevators, the red lipstick and the leatherbound books of the Oxford library, the northern lights pierced through with magical kingdoms and the deep purple robes of the magisterium — it is a feast for the senses.
The book promises much the same. As Katherine May describes it in Wintering, it’s perfect for when you’re “craving icy tundra, armoured bears and Dust, hidden cities in the aurora, and the warm embrace of the gyptians,” and so I will add it to my list this year.
If you want to adventure into the arctic
I think Russia has an allure in the wintertime. I tried to sate that desire with Anna Karenina last year, but alas, she dies from the great depressions of her time and place and so wasn’t ideally suited to the task of giving me wanderlust for Siberia. I’m hoping Owls of the Eastern Ice will take up that mantle this year as conservationist Jonathan C. Slaught takes it upon himself to find the mythical owl once captured in a childhood photo.
If you still need some convincing
I used to approach winter with a sort of PTSD. A dread of leaving behind all the adventurous joys of summer only to be secreted away inside my home for the winter — a whole season of my life lost to the darkness. But this book is an invitation to fall in love with the season on its own.
Come February or March, I might need a reminder of the enchantment.
This is the second set of book recommendations I’ve taken to writing. For the first, see: These are the best books to read during quarantine.