Quercus, £18.99 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

Winter: Five Windows on the Season, By Adam Gopnik

A genially erudite writer strides across the snow – but lingers too long by the ice-hockey rink

There is something admirable about a clever, witty and broadly-read essayist like Adam Gopnik's bold attempt to gather disparate strands of art, literature and cultural commentary to make a statement about the human condition.

The New Yorker writer's subject is that season when humans hold in their minds the contradictory notions of a time that is both scary and sweet. He traces the modern concept of winter from the French Enlightenment, where it was "bad" and "dangerous", to its Romantic reinvention as sweet, even seductive. Through examples that stretch from the polar explorers to the meaning of Christmas, ice skating and ice hockey, we see winter as an imaginative place of natural beauty and natural authority.

If nothing else, modern winter is a product of technological advancement. As central heating, durable clothing, better methods of food preservation and electric lights evolved, so did our sentimentality about something that used to signal peril. "Once you were truly warm, winter was, more than ever, for watching." Gopnik illustrates this redrafting of the Northern European imagination with examples from the painter JMW Turner and the art critic John Ruskin, among others, who discovered a new theology in the Alpine beauty of mountains and glaciers.

The polar explorers of the late 19th and early 20th century took this romantic ideal one step further in their search for a place of natural purity. Gopnik skilfully retells these stories in a chapter on "radical winter", where he interrogates our enduring fascination with those stoic but perhaps morally dubious men who ventured out to claim a meaningless geographical entity, often leading whole crews to their deaths. But we remember the likes of Scott, Amundsen and Peary because they were brave in ways that, writes Gopnik, "still overwhelm our imagination".

Although squeezing the polar explorers into this overarching category is something of a fudge, Winter more comfortably deconstructs the bloated buying-fest that is now Christmas. Gopnik coolly unwraps it as a season marked by the tensions of renewal – the symbolic Christ-child, the beginning of another year, the winter solstice all rolled up together – and reversal, where the normal rules of order are not just relaxed but inverted. It was intriguing to learn that Christmas long pre-dates Christianity as a pagan festival, with Santa appearing as an updated version of Saturn, a white-haired fertility god welcomed home once a year to turn the world upside down.

While all this provided insight and entertainment, a whole chapter devoted, rather apologetically, to ice hockey left me yawning by the side of the rink. Neither were Gopnik's arguments wholly consistent, with a tendency to generalise and lump together periods, nations and even geographies to form a wobbly kind of whole. It's the kind of thing that sets a historian's teeth on edge. How exactly should one decipher the meaning of "And once actual sex between unmarried people became socially acceptable, sometime in the 1920s, the energy fell away from ice-skating and the skating rink got moved to the periphery of the park"? Or Gopnik's assertion that in 1871 Christmas became a bank holiday in Britain while, in reality, this didn't include Scotland until 1996?

His modern cycle of an "autumn-to-winter season of festivals" includes Thanksgiving, surely a wholly American tradition. A bit more care in marshalling his evidence would have helped smooth out some apparent anomalies. But if you want a book that will give you enough food for thought to get you through the long nights, you could do worse than mull over the meaning of what lies outside in the dark of a winter's eve.

Arts & Entertainment
Maisie Williams of Game of Thrones now
tvMajor roles that grow with their child actors are helping them to steal the show on TV
Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
music

Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
music

VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
film

Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit