Winter: Five Windows on the Season by Adam Gopnik

CBC Massey Lectures “Winter: Five Windows on the Season” by Adam Gopnik

House of Anansi Press, 2011
By Rebecca Colbeck
CBC’s Massey Lectures celebrate their 50th anniversary this year. Started in 1961, the lecture series was named for Vincent Massey, who served as the Governor General of Canada from 1952 to 1959 (the first Canadian to hold the post). The Massey Lectures are an annual week-long series of lectures on political, cultural or philosophical topics given by noted scholars:  past lecturers have included Martin Luther King Jr., Northrop Frye, John Kenneth Galbraith, Margaret Atwood, Jane Jacobs, Ronald Wright, and many others. During the expansive half century that has passed since the late British economist Barbara Ward delivered the first Massey Lectures, on the subject of rich and poor nations, the annual five-part series has become an annual treat. Broadcasted worldwide on CBC Radio on successive nights in early November and published simultaneously by House of Anansi Press, the lectures are a week-long a Stanley Cup final for the mind: engaging on every level.
While this year’s topic, winter, is a natural for Canadians, the season itself is anything but. For most of us winter is less a phase of nature, and more of a sort of evil endurance test: unending months of snow-shovelling, frostbitten appendages and cynical Christmases, too-short days and a too-long hockey seasons (seasons made longer for some of us by our allegiance to Montreal Canadiens).  This year, just as the inevitable winter blues begin to grab hold, along comes Adam Gopnik, this year’s Massey lecturer, with enviable insight and good will, ushering us excitedly to what he has dubbed the “five windows on the season”.
Gopnik, a long-time New Yorker writer who grew up in Montreal, one of the wintriest cities in the world, begins his tour of the season with a delicious lecture on ‘Romantic Winter’. He tells of his first winter memory, as a boy gazing from the window of the family home, appreciative of being safely inside, as a November snowstorm swirls into the street and yard. The gist of what follows is that it was not until the mid-1700s, with the advent coal as heating fuel, that winter was sufficiently tamed to be rendered romantically into painting and literature and music: and of course, into the thoughts of a boy at a window. This new attitude to the season was simultaneously an escape from “the too rationalized, the too Cartesian, the too reasonable systems of the French Enlightenment.”
Lecture two, ‘Radical Winter’ speaks to the polar expeditions of the 19th century. Lecture three, ‘Recuperative Winter’, is effect elegant rhapsody to Gopnik’s lifetime passion for the history, practice and meaning of Christmas! He loves the lights, he loves Christmas carols; loves Dickens and Scrooge and he loves snow!  Lecture four, ‘Recreational Winter’, is prefaced by Gopnik’s acknowledgment that he also loves hockey and the Montreal Canadiens, and that his notes for the lecture read, “Chance to talk at length about ice hockey”, which he does with both passion and personality.  He explores skating not only as sport but the embodiment of romance. Given the repressive sexual attitudes of Victorian New York, it is not surprising that on Saturday afternoons during the 1860s, as many as 30,000 people would gather at the Great Rink in Central Park, either to skate or watch. Despite his inspirations, Gopnik offers no conclusions or theories.  Gopnik’s last lecture is ‘Remembering Winter’. This is the most personal and moving of his “five windows” and is a return to the boy and the snowstorm – winter as memory and as time.
The lectures, at their heart are about winter and our relationship to it. Gopnik brings a stream of endless insights and ideas to the page: a fantasy of people and places. One of his concluding points is that, in effect, we have been robbed of winter by central heating (a theft which I happily embrace), warm cars – and now of course global warming. Winter offers us both its beauty and its character-building miseries. As for the deeper suggestions of winter –of loss, of memory, of the non-stop passing of time – I’m with Joni Mitchell, wishing I had a river I could skate away on.
“Winter: Five Windows on the Season” is available at all fine bookstore, including your university bookstore.  It is also available in podcast form from iTunes.