A Winter Reading List
Come January, winter begins to feel more bleak. Gone are the holiday feelings of December – the sweet smelling cookies, the joyous gatherings, and the figurative warmth. Here, instead, are dark nights sans sparkling lights, chilling cold without the promise of mulled wine, and long days spent working alone. The magical white snow begins to turn to dark, slushy ice, the barren trees cover parks in canopies of gray, and you just can't help but wonder how to infuse some magic into what's left of the season (and let's face it, winter only begins on December 21st – it is hardly over).
Personally, I like to fight the January blues with period dramas and books. Early in my undergrad days, I spent a semester majoring in International Relations and was faced with a particularly cold and dreary January where I had to prepare six exams on topics I couldn't stand – depressed to the point where I started losing my hair, I started curling up with period dramas I hadn't seen before and novels that added a bit of sparkle to my days. Even now, six years on, the BBC's adaptation of Emma and Zelda Fitzgerald's Save Me the Waltz stand out in my memory. They brought joy back into my life and helped me realize that I couldn't keep going with IR – I had to go back to studying English. I did and I haven't regretted it a day since.
- The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton
I may have just done a piece on Edith Wharton, but The Age of Innocence is the perfect winter read – it begins in January and will take you down the glittering streets of Fifth Avenue and to the velvet and tulle-filled opera while an intricate love triangle plays out. I reread The Age of Innocence over New Year, and it's one of those novels that reads better as you get older. I was indifferent to it as a teenager, considering it to be one of my least favorite Wharton novels, but I think it's exquisite now.
- The Captain's Daughter and Other Stories, Alexander Pushkin
What says winter quite like Russian literature? Pushkin's The Captain's Daughter, "The Snowstorm," and "The Queen of Spades" are all memorable novellas/short stories that are perfect for the season. Icy and emotional, they'll have you reaching for your imaginary (vintage) furs as you curl up to read the evening away.
- The Portable Dorothy Parker, Dorothy Parker
A couple of bleak Januaries ago, Creative Director Raquel and I came across and exchanged a bunch of Dorothy Parker quotations. The one that stands out to me even now is from a Paris Review interview the author gave in the 1950s about the time she saw a slinky mink-covered arm hanging out the window of a car, holding a bagel. I never knew until then that something could so perfectly express a desired aesthetic. I consequently now get out my Portable Dorothy Parker every January and read excerpts from her short stories, poetry, and critical writing.
- Winter, Ali Smith
I read Ali Smith's Winter through most of December. For some reason, it didn't read as quickly as its predecessor, Autumn, but I oddly enjoyed it even more, all the same. Raquel suggested that maybe it reads slowly because it captures the cold and slow feelings of the season, and I quite prefer that interpretation to just thinking that I was suffering from a reading slump. Taking place over Christmas in 2017, Winter is a beautifully worded piece of stream of consciousness, flowing from character to character and commenting on the current day.
- Flappers and Philosophers, F. Scott Fitzgerald
I don't know what it is about the winter that makes me want to read more short stories than usual. Fitzgerald's "The Ice Palace" especially stands out to me here. Ice skates and bobs and the late 1910s are the perfect way to cheer up mid-winter.
- The Pursuit of Love, Nancy Mitford
An interwar comedy about a struggling upper-class family in England, The Pursuit of Love is sharp, witty, and perfect if you love the likes of Downton Abbey and Evelyn Waugh. Full of dysfunction and divorce, the novel concentrates on the romantic struggles of Linda Radlett. I picked up the novel in Paris a couple of winters ago and quickly read through it, feeling as if I were shivering in the novel's country house.
- Lucy Gayheart, Willa Cather
I don't remember much about Lucy Gayheart other than its snowy cover, piano, ice skates, and Chicago in the winter. My grandmother gave it to me one Christmas in my early teens – a nod to our respective Chicago childhoods and experiences with the piano – and I remember getting lost in its world. It's one I want to revisit before the season is over.
- North and South, Elizabeth Gaskell
Always an excuse for North and South. I love North and South. It's like a socially-conscious, mid-eighteenth century, Industrial Revolution Pride and Prejudice AU with slightly more intense feelings. What's not to love about it? I've read it a couple of times now, but a reread (or a rewatch of the miniseries) must be imminent.
- The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde
Though it begins in summer, Dorian Gray always seems like a winter novel to me. A novel on aestheticism and narcissism, The Picture of Dorian Gray follows the story of a young, blond man who, under the influence of Lord Henry and Basil Hallward, embraces beauty as the ultimate aspect of life and Faustily swears away his life in order to maintain it. It feels to me like everyone in and everyone consuming the novel should be on a velvet chaise longue somewhere, wrapped up in a luxurious dressing gown.
- Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders
Another recent read, Lincoln in the Bardo is perfectly suited to the season. Centered around Willie Lincoln's death in February of 1862, the novel takes place over the course of one evening and examines Abraham Lincoln's grief at the death of his son. An experimental novel, composed of a mixture of strategically edited quotations and fiction as the real world of Washington, D.C. meets the bardo – a Buddhist term for the intermediate space between life and death, the novel is a profound reflection on passing from one world to another.
- Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
You were wondering if it was going to make an appearance, weren't you? Of course it was. Anna Karenina is a force of nature, only to be tackled in mid-winter, preferably when you have plenty of time. I read it during my gap year when I was eighteen, and it has stayed with me since – admittedly for its nineteenth century Russian aesthetics as much as for its story. Love, betrayal, and diamonds run aplenty through the novel and I highly recommend watching the Joe Wright adaptation after reading it – it is truly a visual and musical masterpiece.
- Rules of Civility, Amor Towles
I came across Rules of Civility thanks to a bookseller at an old bookshop that closed in Geneva a couple of years ago, around the time I was collecting all the metallic hardcover editions of F. Scott Fitzgerald's work. She'd noticed my buys and recommended it to me as a must read, and a must read it really is. Taking place in the 1930s, it's a whirlwind story through New York high society for two young boarding house women that begins in a jazz bar. Raquel rereads it every January, and it's at the top of my reread list.
Each novel title is linked to my preferred editions. I highly recommend the Pevear and Volokhonsky translations for Pushkin and Tolstoy. The Age of Innocence, North and South, and The Picture of Dorian Gray are available for free on Project Gutenberg (linked) and through iBooks.