Every year, around the time when mercury rises and the sun starts peeking out, we’re bombarded with countless articles on the best books to read at the beach — because, of course, reading in the sand and sunshine is a great deal more pleasurable than sitting outside with a novel in January. Yet winter, especially a winter like this one, which has already featured bone chilling sub-zero temperatures across the United States, is truly the best season to burrow deep into a great book.
Keeping that in mind, we asked an assortment of people whose taste we trust to let us in on the kinds of books they like to read this time of year, and hopefully add some new snow reads to your list, to help keep you warm until spring.
I love the idea of winter books and save certain books for the colder months. This has become difficult now that I live in Los Angeles. Sorry polar vortex kids, it’s 70 degrees here and I’m walking around in a t-shirt. I usually kick off my winter reading by returning to Sherlock Holmes, usually one of the longer ones. This year I reread The Valley of Fear. But really, any Sherlock Holmes story makes for great winter reading. Aaah, those cold, damp London streets. Also Wilkie Collins. I first read The Woman in White in a freezing attic on a farm in New Hampshire. I spend every Christmas in New Hampshire and couldn’t wait to get back this year so I could read The Moonstone, Collins’ other classic. There’s something about these Victorian detective novels that seems particularly suited to cold weather reading.
— Ivy Pochoda, author of Visitation Street (Dennis Lehane Books/Ecco).
I just finished reading Nick Harkaway’s The Gone-Away World, which somebody recommended to me on Twitter. It’s a big, maddening, highly inventive sci-fi adventure with a lot of surprising twists and turns, and an unusually satisfying reveal towards the end. Harkaway is prone to excessive picaresque asides, but his prose is fantastic. On the other end of the spectrum, I loved Joy Williams’ 99 Stories of God, a collection of very short fiction published, as an ebook, by Byliner.com. Williams is, as always, wry, creepy, and ironic, and this might actually be my favorite book of hers, which is saying a lot.
— J. Robert Lennon, author of Familiar (Graywolf Press)
Autobiography of Red is a story of a boy coming to terms with who he really is. It’s written as both a novel and a poem, and functions as a recreation of a Greek myth, but also tells the story of heartbreak and transformation in the life of Geryon, a boy who becomes an artist and overcomes the trappings of his mind and body. This book encourages the reader to look inward herself, which is perfect for winter, a time for turning inward in order to be renewed and transformed with the spring.
— Sarah Versprille and Daniel Hindman of the band Pure Bathing Culture. Their latest album, Moon Tides, is out on Partisan Records.
When I think of books that echo the desolation of winter, J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians comes to mind. The landscape is bleak and unforgiving. The story is tension-filled and haunting. It’s a perfect winter read.
— Karolina Waclawiak, author of the novel How to get Into the Twin Palms and essays editor at The Believer
Because I live in an excessively rural part of the already rural Massachusetts Berkshires, in the winter, I like to read big hardcovers set in exotic locales that transport me to warmer places where an eclectic cast of characters take part in sexualized misadventures — basically, any kind of fiction that reminds me that underneath my long johns, I still have skin. For this reason, in the dark season I’m a Carl Hiaasen fan, particularly Stormy Weather. Other winter favorites are Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone and Norman Rush’s Mating.
— Courtney Maum, author of the forthcoming novel I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You (Touchstone)
I read War and Peace one winter. It was good, because by the time I finished it winter was over. Right now I’m reading Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell. I like reading it in front of a raging fire and imagining myself burning up in the flames, which sometimes seems preferable to suffering through the seemingly eternal damnation of another East Coast winter.
— Adam Wilson, author of the novel Flatscreen and the forthcoming short-story collection What’s Important Is Feeling
Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges: I love this book in the winter (even though I live in California, where it never gets cold enough to really enjoy reading by a fireplace) because you can just flip it open and start reading anywhere. It’s a collection of a few dozen short stories that take place in the past, present and future. Some are historically based, some are completely futuristic and sci-fi. They all have a sort of mystical/psychedelic feel, with many twists and a sort of beautiful/meditative, time doesn’t exist/nowhere is everywhere vibe. Dynamic and believable villains, twisted heroes and Jules Verne-like glimpses into imaginative, alternate worlds.
— Chris Lynch of the band Gardens & Villa, whose new album, Dunes, is out February 4 via Secretly Canadian
Every year, by the time the first flakes fall I’m ready to pull out Tinkers, by Paul Harding. For a few hours, I get to pretend I’m chopping heavily frosted wood in the middle of a massive nor’easter while living through the strangely beautiful center of George’s epileptic seizures. It makes Black Friday and awkward in-law conversations feel almost tolerable in comparison.
— Kawai Strong Washburn currently resides, with his wife Christina, in Washington, DC, where he is hard at work on a novel and short story collection. His story, “What the Ocean Eats,” is forthcoming in McSweeney’s 46.
My favorite winter books are long, romantic, and depressing, which is why I love Julie Orringer’s epic novel The Invisible Bridge. Painful, honest, and lyrical, it’s the perfect book to get lost in when the temperature outside gets lower than you ever thought possible.
— Michael Schaub, book critic
Winter more lends itself to escaping with a book than summer — in the hotter months I want to be outside, walking or swimming or hanging out, but in winter I want to hole up and read. With that in mind, I’m looking forward to reading Middlemarch by George Eliot for the first time this winter, because it seems like the perfect book to lose myself in, and then reread every few years for something new.
— Sarah Weinman, editor of Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense (Penguin).
Although it begins in the summer of 1919, Troubles, the first book in J.G. Farrell’s “Empire trilogy,” which itself charts the sprawling decay of British colonialism over the first half of the 20th century, is a frostily comical novel of manners that’s well suited for days when the light leaves us early. Revolving around happy-go-lucky WWI Major Brendan Archer’s tenure at the ruined Majestic Hotel in Kilnalough, Ireland, where Archer has come to claim his bride, this gloomy satire has it all: dowager coiffures, a lady of mystery and hoards upon hoards of ferocious stray cats.
— Adrian Van Young, author of the short story collection The Man Who Noticed Everything (Black Lawrence Press)
Longer novels are more likely to command my attention in winter than in warmer seasons because there’s not that pressure during the day of, “I should be outside to capture this amazing weather,” even if I’d kind of rather be inside reading. I’ve just started Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings — ironically, I suppose, since it has to do with people who met at summer camp.
— Sari Botton, editor of Goodbye to All That.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt. In fact, I don’t think it should be read any time but winter. Right around the winter solstice is ideal. It’s a book that is best enjoyed when paired with limited sunlight, bitter cold, several blankets, and cheap red wine.
— Stephanie Anderson, librarian and erstwhile bookseller
“The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.” That is the first line in The Secret History by Donna Tartt, a book I read every year, usually in February. The cold New England weather plays a big part in the novel (e.g. Richard’s freezing rental, Bunny’s body being hidden by the snow) that it makes for perfect winter reading. It is also an amazing book to read during the other three seasons. Or if they don’t have seasons on your planet, it’s a good book to read anytime. If they don’t have books on your planet, either, well, I will pray for you.
— Liberty Hardy, bookseller
Stoner is the womb-to-tomb story of William Stoner, a farm boy turned English professor at the University of Missouri. Though set in the insular world of academia, Stoner is at heart a vocational novel. It’s about satisfaction from a life lived, rather than longing for a life that might have been. Williams’ prose is sharp and graceful — read it under a blanket over the course of a cold, short day.
— Halimah Marcus, co-editor of Electric Literature
In winter I like sprawling novels, full of conflict and intrigue, and during the bleakest, coldest days of December I holed up with Nicola Griffith’s Hild, a book of love and sex and war and religious upheaval, and I recommend it even over the warmest pair of Sorels.
— Maud Newton, writer and critic
I recently finished reading Nigerians in Space by Deji Olukotun. It’s due out in February and is the first book from boutique publisher Unnamed Press in Los Angeles. It’s a madcap first novel that unravels like a spy thriller and includes Nigerian scientists working on a mission to the moon, abalone smugglers, and a fashion model with a magical skin condition.
— Mark Haskell Smith, author of Raw: A Love Story (Grove Atlantic)
I find that in the wintertime I prefer long, epic novels, and I like to revisit familiar books. I regret Infinite-summering because I would have preferred to read Infinite Jest in the Polar Vortex (maybe that’s why I only got halfway through?). For some reason this winter Steinbeck was calling to me and I felt the need to return to East of Eden which I haven’t read since high school and hardly remembered. It felt so epic then that I wanted to revisit that Salinas Valley world, and it’s long enough and I’m busy enough to know that it will keep me company on a good number of those dark wintry evenings.
Also, I find that I get all nostalgic in wintertime, and after reading all the reviews of Pierpont’s Roth Unbound, I began revisiting Portnoy’s Complaint, the book that shook up my adolescent world. Does it still hold up well into adulthood? So far so good.
— Jeffrey Yoskowitz is a writer and co-founder of Gefilteria
Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas: Not about winter, but the best thing to read with your pals radio play style after you have eaten good food.
— Amelia Heath, of the Partisan Records bands Sylvan Esso and Mountain Man
W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz: For a beach read, you want something poppy, something you can jump in and out of and get a little wet here and there. For winter, I like a more meditative book, one you can get lost in, and stay lost in. One that’s engaging enough, strange enough, beautiful enough, to keep me in my chair and beneath my blanket for as long as possible. Sebald folds the personal into the historical, the fictional into the non-fictional, so efficiently, that reading Austerlitz makes one’s existence in this world feel simultaneously immense and incredibly intimate. I first read Austerlitz in an abandoned ski cabin at the top of a mountain in the middle of Vermont’s Long Trail at the end of September. It felt important that I was cold while reading it. It felt important that I was tired and willing to let Sebald lead me wherever he felt like. It felt important that, from the opening moments of the book, I knew I could trust him.
— Colin Winnette, author of Fondly: Two Novellas (Atticus Books)