Shelagh's Summer Specials: Adam Gopnik


Shelagh Rogers interviewed many fabulous authors this past season on The Next Chapter. Every now and then, she would have a conversation so compelling, juicy, riveting or fascinating that it deserved more time than the radio show could allow. So, The Next Chapter has offered up extended versions of those conversations as special webisodes and podcasts.

Every Thursday in July and August, CBC Books has presented Shelagh's Summer Specials, an encore presentation of those great full-length conversations.

In the final conversation of the series, Shelagh talks with Adam Gopnik about his book Winter: Five Windows on the Season. An edited version of this interview originally aired on the October 3, 2011, episode.

We hope you enjoy!

You can hear The Next Chapter on CBC Radio One every Monday at 1 p.m. and Saturday at 4 p.m. (a half hour later in Newfoundland).

Canadians have an ambivalent relationship with winter. The season can feel long and hard and dreary, but it can also be bracing and invigorating. It's also arguably the season that has most shaped the Canadian psyche, and numerous artists and writers have been inspired by it.

As the 2011 Massey Lecturer, bestselling author and New Yorker staff writer Adam Gopnik offered his take on the season in a series of five lectures. These were brought together in his book, Winter: Five Windows on the Season.

Adam Gopnik

Gopnik opens the book with his memory of his first snowstorm. "I was 10 years old, we had just moved to Montreal, and of course I had seen snow sporadically in an earlier Philadelphia chapter in my childhood," he told host Shelagh Rogers. " But the snow started falling one November day in Montreal, and you just knew the way this blanket of white fell, and embroidered, italicized, the world, that you had entered a new place, a new land, a new epoch of winter."

Gopnik described it as "one of the key experiences of my life, because I loved it. I thought it was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen, the most mysterious and the most enchanting. And I said, 'Ah, that's why we moved to Canada.'"

Gopnik kept that feeling about winter, and so when he started thinking about the Massey Lectures, he seized on it as a subject. "It spoke so deeply to my own pleasures and preoccupations, but also because it seems to me one of the great modern subjects," he said. The tension between the serenity of winter and the perilous nature of the season drew him "because that's the way that artists and writers and polar explorers and so many people have thought about winter. "

Gopnik pointed to the German painter Caspar David Friedrich, "whose winter images are all about loneliness and melancholy and the skeleton of the world." And then there's Tchaikovsky, whose winter music is all about the "the crystalline, the enchantment of the winter season. It's exactly because it registers at either extreme that I think it's such a compelling season to talk about."

Gopnik acknowledged there's a certain autobiographical element to all writing, and says that there's a retrospective aspect to Winter. "It's looking back on my own youth, my own childhood. Those moments when you suddenly see the beauty in the spare and the bare," he said. "That's, in plain English, a middle-aged moment, I suppose."

Gopnik spends much of his book examining the 19th-century view of winter, because he believes it has shaped contemporary thinking about the season. "There are two pieces to the winter equation.On the one hand, we're drawn to the enigmatic mystery and the forbidding beauty of winter, but we still see it through a window, as I saw that first snowstorm when I was a boy," he explained. "The idea is that we can only love winter when we have some safety from it, when we're at a little bit of a remove from it." At the same time, Gopnik says, we can feel "that we're too safe, that we need to be expelled out into winter, as in polar exploration."

Adam Gopnik

Gopnik even sees this tension in the celebration of Christmas, which he describes as "a safe, indoor, middle-class potlatch of abundance." At the same time, there's the powerful winter imagery "of the single candle burning in the darkness, the single hope in the midst of a desolate wasteland." To Gopnik, our attitude to winter isn't either/or, it contains both, and that's what drew him to the subject. "That's what the 19th century first envisioned, and passed along to us."

Of course, no discussion of winter is complete without a look at hockey. Gopnik says he carries around a Canadian $5 bill because it features "that beautiful picture of the boys playing hockey on a pond," which suggests the mythic notion of hockey springing out of the backwoods. But in researching the history of the game, Gopnik discovered that its roots are urban, not rural. "It's a city sport. It's made out of the conflict of ethnic clans in the big city."

Gopnik believes that "a lot of what we love about hockey comes from that experience, and a lot of what worries us about hockey." Gopnik is troubled by the degree of brutality in the professional game nowadays. But he's still an ardent fan. "I actually objectively believe it's the greatest sport that you can possibly watch or play, and I wanted to understand a little bit more about why that was, and think about why that was."

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