Winters can be long in these Northern climes. Yesterday I walked to work with white fluffy snowflakes dusting my hair. As gardening friends in Europe and the United States have begun sinking their fingers in dirt, I felt the urge to stop by at the local Home Depot to pick up potting soil. “It’s still frozen,” the gardening expert said. “But I can dig some out for you. Let me get my ice chopper.” This is early April as you approach the 49th parallel.
Unless you are part of the horde of old farts that seem to get some great delight in caviling about the weather at Tim Hortons and McDonald, there doesn’t seem to be much use in complaining about winter. Instead, we bear up to it and revel in it with perverse and grim pleasure. We snowshoe and ski and hike. We put food in jars for later and play hockey. We check our emergency supplies and wait for a storm to blow the power out so we can fill the night with candles. We string mittens on strings in front of woodstoves or above heating vents. If you track the birth patterns of Canadians, it is statistically probable that we do other things too during those candlelit evening without television or wifi.
Whether by candlelight or lamplight, with our feet on the fender or in slippers under an afghan, wintertime is a great chance to catch up on great books. This is why I invented SHANWAR, the Stickin’ Huge Awesome Novel Winter Awesome Read. Sometimes you need a honkin’ big book to take you through the long nights and snowbound days. When I’m avoiding digging into a life-threatening snowdrift, I am often digging into a time-stealing story. SHANWAR is not so much a reading challenging as a survival mechanism.
As our first few feet of snow fell in Prince Edward Island last fall, I was finishing off the last three long books of the Harry Potter hepatology. Last winter was the two-volume Well at the World’s End edition by William Morris, though they are only 600 pages total. It was the gargantuan David Foster Wallace book, Infinite Jest, that haunted my late winter and early spring. It is one of the most imaginative books I have ever read, but I don’t know if I have enough free hours left in this life to repeat the feat.
In past years I read Margaret George’s autobiography of Henry VIII and Matthew Dickerson’s The Rood and the Torc–both of which have some cool winter tales within them. Charles Dickens’ Bleak House is one of my all-time favourites–though winter is not bleak in Canada as it is in London; here it is more terrifying. Over the last decade, I have read most of the Jack Ryan cycle by Tom Clancy–to the horror of my truly literary friends. With due respect to the literati, it was not Clancy’s onerous-but-spytastic thrillers that were my SHANWAR mistakes. No, the worst reading choice I have ever made was beginning–and continuing to the literary sludge that was the end–Ayn Rand‘s Atlas Shrugged. It is a winter of words that I can never, ever, get back.
About every third of my SHANWAR reads have been by Stephen King, though some are technically too short for “Stinkin’ Huge” designations. Needful Things was me melting into a leather couch housesitting at a cottage with a wall of south-facing windows. The Dark Half and Salem’s Lot were the post-Christmas cleanse from happy feelings of two subsequent years. You have to read The Shining in winter, or what’s the point? If you can’t feel nature hemming you in, you won’t be able to feel your skin crawl in just the right way.
Stephen King can heat up the coldest winter. So, as I was scanning the shelves for SHANWAR 2017, I picked up The Stand. That I had a flu that was evocative of plague levels heightened the pleasure and the panic. At nearly 1000 pages–I didn’t have the 1200-page uncut version–both the length and brilliant story fit into the SHANWAR sweet spot. I’ll post more about this book soon.
As I was closing the last page of The Stand, I already started thinking about this coming fall, when the year sinks into its icy depths. What books would I like to read for SHANWAR 2017-18?
I am not counting my continual long-reads (which I talk about here). This fall I will be finishing up J.R.R. Tolkien’s Letters and John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. For me, SHANWAR is a pin-yourself-to-the-page kind of read, where I go chest to chest with a great work and see if I can make it over the course of a few months.
So, what’s up ahead?
Well, I’ve found the second-last Jack Ryan book at a yard sale. At 1137 pages, The Bear and the Dragon is positively thin for Tom Clancy. That’s a possibility. I would like to read all the Sherlock stories and T.H. White’s Arthurian cycle, but I have good audiobooks for each of those, so it’s a different kind of reading experience than SHANWAR. Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind is tempting me, hitting SHANWAR’s “stinkin’ big” level with 662 pages. One day I will have to succumb to George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, which is about 2m words total (so each book qualifies for SHANWAR, and whole series qualifies for a medal). I have 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami on my shelf, but as it is such a nice hardback I can’t use a razor blade to split the book up to make it lighter to hold. We’ll see: my carpal tunnel syndrome is already starting to complain at the sight of the book.
Or–and I suppose some of you saw this coming–I could read IT. I was a teenager the last time I picked it up. Since then I have worked as a professional clown, traveled through Maine, created offspring of my own, read a dozen more Stephen King stories, and wrote a couple books of my own. At 444,000 words and considered one of the greatest horror books of history, IT seems like the perfect choice for SHANWAR. Plus, I have heard rumours that a film remake is in the works.
Actually, I just googled it, and the trailer was released last week! Nearly peed my pants watching just the trailer. Which is a bad thing to do in PEI in winter: your jeans freeze to your legs. It can be very uncomfortable.
So, are you a practitioner of SHANWAR–even if you didn’t know about it? What kind of books filled your winter nights this year? I am always on the hunt for the perfect long winter’s tale, so please share with readers of A Pilgrim in Narnia.