White magic … Ethan Hawke in the film of Snow Falling on Cedars.
Charlie English’s first book, The Snow Tourist, is part eulogy, part history, part quest for the best snow on the planet.
I don’t remember exactly when I saw my first snow, but I do recall thinking as a child that I could sense, some mornings – perhaps from the mineral scent of frozen water – that snow had fallen overnight. I remember how my heart lifted when I opened the bedroom curtains and found the world transformed. In literature, snow is often used to represent death, but it also brings beauty, romance, happiness and an empty white space in which to reflect upon ourselves. Here are my top 10 books that include snow, or are about snow.
1 The Call of the Wild by Jack London
I first read Jack London’s novella as a child, without knowing the era he was describing or even really where it was, except it was in the far north, but the wild territory captured me nevertheless. Buck, the canine hero, is snatched from his soft life in California and put to work as a sled dog during the Klondike gold rush. Buck sees and eats his first snow (“it bit like fire”) and learns to succeed in this hard-knock world, eventually finding his inner wolf. I have since seen this territory first-hand, and the immense levels of snow that the Klondike stampeders – of whom London was one – had to negotiate, and am full of admiration.
2 A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
Our obsession with white Christmases seems to stem from this book. Dickens’s portrayal of London in winter is filled with snow because that’s how he had experienced Christmas as a child: the climate was much colder in the early 19th century, and six of his first nine Christmases were white.
3 The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard
I’m a sucker for a misadventure story, the more disaster the better. Scott’s polar expedition is perhaps the greatest in the extensive British canon. “Cherry”, at 24 one of the youngest members of Scott’s party, gives us the best-written account by far. The most dramatic passages occur when the Cherry is sent on a subsidiary expedition to collect an emperor penguin egg. This was, he says, “the worst journey in the world”. He later said: “Polar exploration is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time which has been devised.”
4 Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson
The title alone reminds me of the Pacific Northwest, where some of the world’s tallest and oldest trees grow in the humid air driven in from the ocean. The snow thrives here too: this is a part of the world that claims the highest snowfall on the planet. Guterson’s drama starts with the wonderful description of a snowstorm in which the flakes blow into an island community and stick to the windows of the courthouse where the story is to unfold.
5 Walden (or Life in the Woods) by Henry David Thoreau
In an early back-to-nature living experiment, Thoreau decided to live in a shack by a small Massachussetts lake, Walden Pond, for two years starting in summer of 1845. His descriptions of man and nature in winter are superb.
6 The Snowflake: Winter’s Secret Beauty by Kenneth Libbrecht and Patricia Rasmussen
The pre-eminent snow scholar of the 21st century, Caltech professor of physics Libbrecht explains in layman’s terms how snow works, while Rasmussen’s photographs of individual crystals are stunning for their detail. Libbrecht is the heir to a tradition of scientific study of ice crystals that runs back to Johannes Kepler and includes René Descartes, Robert Hooke, the Vermont farmer Wilson Bentley and the Japanese snow scientist Ukichiro Nakaya.
7 Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Shelley famously wrote her Gothic horror story while staying at Lord Byron’s house by Lake Geneva in 1816, but the inspiration for many of its frozen scenes came from a trip to Chamonix with her husband-to-be, Percy Bysshe Shelley. The couple climbed up from the valley floor to Montenvers to see the Mer de Glace, a stretch of a glacier that has carved a great hole out of the side of the Mont Blanc massif, and were overcome by the sublime drama of the scene. Mary Shelley wrote of its “awful majesty”. In Frankenstein, the doctor tracks his monster down to the Mer de Glace, where he has been hiding out.
8 Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow by Peter Hoeg
Perhaps the most famous snow novel, in which the half-Inuit heroine’s knowledge of snow provides the vital clue to a child’s death. Peter Hoeg’s feeling for snow made me understand there was more to the stuff I had skied on so often than I had suspected, and introduced me to the fierce and immensely proud Greenland Inuit.
9 An Account of the Arctic Regions by William Scoresby Jnr
Scoresby is perhaps the second most famous sailor to have come from Whitby (behind Captain Cook). Like his father, he was a whaling skipper, and is acknowledged by Herman Melville as source for Moby-Dick, although he could not have been more different than Captain Ahab. An intellectual in a brutal trade, he was the first scientist to study the Arctic. He made the most detailed observations of snow crystals, sitting drawing them on the ship’s deck during snow showers in the Greenland sea.
10 Snow by Ruth Kirk
Kirk lived at the Paradise ranger station on Mount Rainier in Washington state for several years with her husband, a national park ranger. Paradise at the time was reputed to be the snowiest place in the world (it is still a leading contender), and Kirk used her time there to acquire an encyclopedic knowledge of snow. The book covers everything from how animals interact with snow to fighting in the snow, and the various types of snow architecture.
Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2008/nov/14/charlie-english-snow-tourist