I wanted very much to like this book, but Gopnik has nothing to say. He’s playing the role of the guy who rambles on about whatever expecting us to be pleased at where he winds up because he is just so cultured and knowledgable. (I know. The point of an essay is to wander in a useful, enjoyable, interesting way. My point is that these essays simply wander.) A bigger problem is that I don’t believe for one minute that Gopnik’s interested in the various minor whatnots he trots out. They feel contrived and make all the rest seem suspect.
To my eye, Gopnik’s real concern is form. He is not so much writing about winter as he is performing the essay in relation to the topic. What bothers me here is that there are awkward attempts to connect with his readers/listeners through pop culture and popular forms, a lot of them. These plus the various, marginal whatnots (which he clearly expects we will not have heard of) make it seem as if Gopnik thinks he is talking to children or simpletons. Because he is so attentive to form, I assume that this is intentional and that he does.
Which brings me to the thing that kept nagging at me as I read. I think these essays may be an ex-pat telling Canada, the Great White North, that winter’s white-cold nights really are interesting. It feels like a writer is patting his homeland on the head and telling its inhabitants they are beautiful “just the way they are. Chin up.” (I’m probably being touchy here.)
I read the first essay carefully and with excitement. I started the second quickly and in dismay. By the third, I was skipping and skimming and feeling no need to go back and pick up what I’d missed.