I think that winter might just be the best time of year for reading. Where I grew up it was often said that there were only three seasons: nine months of deep, snow-drifty winter, two months of mosquito-filled summer, and a month of mud in between, and where I live now, winter can still be a cold, dark and difficult season.
Winter and I have certainly had some struggles, and occasionally we fail to get along with one another. I even ran away to southern California for four years after one of our biggest fights. But I’ve realized recently–and known, somehow or other, all along–that truthfully, I love winter: I love snow, I love the incredible, frigid clarity of blue winter skies, I love mittens, cocoa and Christmas. But this love goes hand in hand with the knowledge that for all the days of pure, azure winter skies, there are two days of grey, for every day of snow, two of rain or sleet, for every hour of real daylight, two that feel like relative darkness. There are always going to be, for me, some winter days that I simply feel the need to get through, to survive.
This next week, leading up to winter solstice on December 21st, is, in day-light terms, the shortest week of the year. In these final weeks of gathering darkness, there’s a utopian image of winter reading I turn to, to lighten my spirits. I imagine myself curling up into a blanket on a sofa, sipping a steaming mug of cocoa with one hand, turning the pages of a long, engrossing novel with the other, while a sweet-smelling wood fire crackles nearby.
Just like my imaginary picture of perfect winter reading, most of my favorite winter stories are essentially about warmth. They’re stories mostly about a different kind of warmth, granted, from the kind created by burning wood and measured by a thermostat. They’re stories filled with the warmth that comes from love and compassion, a warmth just as important as that of blankets, cocoa, and crackling fires.
With warmth and compassion as guiding themes I guess it’s not surprising that my favorite books to read, or I should say, reread, in December, are Christmas stories. Even though most of the religious vestiges of being a minister’s daughter have, for better or for worse, fallen away from me over the past decade or so, I still adore Christmas. I love its traditions, its cookies, its carols, its stories, its general atmosphere of warmth, giving and good cheer.
So as Christmas nears (only two weeks away!) I find myself moving through the rooms of my house, stopping before different bookshelves to pull out slim, well-worn and well-remembered volumes, and, for a little while, I don’t so much set aside my other reading as momentarily forget about it entirely, giving in to the pleasure of returning to books that I read (or had read to me) as a child, books that still make me, in the best of ways, feel like a child. Or maybe, what I mean to say, is that these books return to me the child’s powerful ability to feel; they give me back the child’s less circumspect capacity for feeling.
Two of the books I’ll be rereading in the next two weeks—Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and O.Henry’s short story “The Gift of the Magi”—are famous, widely read, even performed as plays, or made into films or Christmas television specials. The third book, Torten’s Christmas Secret, by Maurice Dolbier, is relatively, and unfortunately, unknown. I know no one outside my own family who has read it—in fact, if you “google image” it (as I did, hoping to get a picture of its beautiful illustrations to post in this entry) you get a great many pictures of chocolate tortes, captioned “the secret to this Christmas torte,” or something along those lines.
A Christmas Carol is the famous story of bah-humbugging Mr. Scrooge, his encounters with the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, and his journey toward understanding the true spirit of Christmas. “The Gift of the Magi” is the story of a young couple, Jim and Della, who are so in love that each sells their own most prized possession to buy a gift for the other, and Torten’s Christmas Secret is the story of an elf named Torten, and his friend, the loyal polar bear, Drusus, who together embark on a secret mission to ensure that every child, naughty or nice, will have a gift to open on Christmas morning.
Of the three books, the third is probably my favorite, because my mother read it to my sister and me every year during the week before Christmas, finishing the final chapter after we came home from church on Christmas eve.
I don’t want to spoil the plots of any of these stories for those who haven’t read them, but it’s fairly obvious from even the sentence-long descriptions I’ve given here that all these books are about compassion…having it, using it, learning it. And the act of reading depends on compassion too, depends on the reader’s ability to imagine, and to empathize, to share in the joys and pains of myriad fictional persons and realities. When talking about our favorite books (particularly for me, my favorite books from childhood), we’re likely to say something like “I identified really strongly” with such and such a character, and what we mean is that we could feel something of what they were feeling, understand what they were going through, know, somehow, a little bit of what it was like to be them.
Sometimes I miss how much simpler compassion was for me as a child. I miss the intensity of my affection for characters like Anne Shirley and her friend Diana, for Jo March, or E.B. White’s Wilbur, for Harold and his purple crayon, or for Alexander on his terrible, horrible, very bad day.
Of course I still empathize with many of the characters in my favorite books, with the Kilgore Trouts, Jane Eyres, or Clarissa Dalloways, and in some ways this compassion is perhaps deeper than what I felt for Wilbur and Charlotte or for Anne, spelt with an “e”. But it certainly isn’t easier. Now I’ve read so many books where compassion isn’t so much evoked as it is, perhaps, thwarted, books like Lolita, A Clockwork Orange or Notes from the Underground, and so many other books which seem to express the adult (perhaps) truth that compassion is full of pitfalls. Plots are more complicated, narrators unreliable, affection harder to bestow unreservedly, and characters, often, upon full revelation, are discovered to be, in the end, undeserving, or at least less deserving than I’d thought–or hoped–them to be.
I love these books, in all their shades of grey, all their chameleonic complexities. But it’s nice, in this, the darkest month of the year, to go back some of the books I read as a child, books that feel like they’re full of light and warmth, books that I first opened before imagination became separated from reality, when feelings were strong and affections unabated, before I was aware that compassion is perhaps best bestowed carefully, and that self-preservation can, in fact, sometimes be contrary to love.
So I urge you, if the darkness, the cold and the wind-chill are getting you down, to curl up with a blanket, ask someone you love to make you a hot mug of cocoa—or, I suppose, if you’re in a warmer climate, forget the blanket and head outside to your favorite spot of grass with a tall glass of cool lemonade—and reread one of your own favorite stories (I’d love to hear which ones they are). And if you’re still feeling chilly after that, search local theatre listings for a performance of A Christmas Carol, drive around searching for the most ridiculously light-covered house in your neighborhood (and try not to think of the energy crisis as you look at it), or head to your local library and check out O. Henry’s “Gift of the Magi.” And if you’d like to hear Torten’s Christmas Secret, bundle up and come visit me in Michigan on Christmas Eve, and I’ll read it to you. Promise!