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  • Srishti Ramakrishnan

The Broad’s Seasonal Recommendations: What to Read this Winter

Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq

The Broad’s Creative Editor, Srishti Ramakrishnan, has assembled a winter reading list of ten essential pieces of literature to read before the end of the season. This lineup offers a variety of reads to match the ups and downs of this windy, Edinburgh winter. Dive into this winter’s reading selection and you're bound to find the perfect book to accompany the season’s chill.

Anthony Doerr - All The Light We Cannot See (2014)

“So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?”

All The Light We Cannot See, Scribner

Set during World War II, this book revolves around two young people in the French town of Saint-Malo: a blind French girl who has fled there after the Nazi invasion of Paris, and a boy in the German military who has a talent for radios. Connected by a radio broadcast teaching science to children, the narrative alternates between their perspectives, and Doerr’s lyrical style creates characters with depth and nuance, forcing us to confront the humanity of those on both sides of the war. The recent Netflix adaptation beautifully portrays the subtleties of Doerr’s story, and his message about appreciating small miracles feels fitting for the spirit of winter.

Leo Tolstoy - Anna Karenina (1878)

“All the variety, all the charm, all the beauty of life is made up of light and shadow.”

Ivan Kramskoi, ‘Portrait of an Unknown Woman’, 1883

Anna Karenina is not only an epic Russian love story that feels perfect for winter, but is also considered one of the greatest works of literature. The main story centres around Anna’s affair with the dashing Count Vronsky, but the variety of other plot points creates a complex narrative which speaks to Tolstoy’s genius as a writer. The book deals with betrayal, marriage, religion, Russian Imperial society, desire, and rural versus urban life to name just a few. Although it comes to almost 1000 pages long, Anna Karenina is a must-read and will undoubtedly stand the test of time as a hallmark of Russian literature (plus it looks very impressive on your bookshelf).

William Shakespeare - Hamlet (1603)

“To be, or not to be, that is the question.”

William Morris Hunt, ‘Portrait of Hamlet’, c. 1864

Full of quoteable lines, Hamlet is one of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies, and also his longest play. It tells the story of Prince Hamlet, as he attempts to take revenge on his uncle who has murdered Hamlet’s father in order to marry his mother and seize the throne. The themes of murder, power and psychological decline set against the backdrop of Denmark lend themselves to the darker side of winter, while Hamlet’s existential crises might feel oddly relatable during the dark months. Countless actors have taken on the leading role, notably Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hiddleston and Andrew Scott, but if you’re looking for an animated adaptation with talking animals and great songs, The Lion King has you covered.

Anne Carson - If not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho (2002)

"Not one girl I think / who looks on the light of the sun / will ever / have wisdom / like this.”

If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, Virago

Although there are countless poems about winter, I wanted to include a lesser-known collection that more subtly embodies the character of winter. In this book, Anne Carson has translated the poetry of the Archaic Greek poetess Sappho, of which only fragments remain. Sappho was a celebrated writer in her time, named by some as the ‘Tenth Muse’, and Carson beautifully captures the lyrical quality of her words. The fragmentary nature of the poems allows the reader to infuse them with their own meaning, and serves as a testament to the ability of words to withstand the transience of time, a reminder that feels important in this season.  

Italo Calvino - If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller (1979)

“What harbour can receive you more securely than a great library?”

Harald Sohlberg, ‘Winter Night in the Mountains’, 1914

The title of this short novel by Italian author Italo Calvino automatically puts it on this list, but its incredibly unique style deserves great appreciation regardless. Much of it is written in the second person, immediately involving ‘you’ as the reader in the narrative, who discovers part way into the book that it is misprinted, only to find that another copy of the same book has a completely different plot, as does every other copy – and every story is of a different style and genre. To be honest, the plot is pretty difficult to explain, especially without spoiling anything, but it is extremely intriguing, and Calvino’s genius in writing this postmodern novel can only be fully appreciated after reading it.

Elizabeth Gaskell - North and South (1855)

“Her soul would walk in glorious sunlight if any man was worthy, by his power of loving, to win back her love.”

North and South, BBC

Elizabeth Gaskell is essentially the Jane Austen of the Industrial Revolution, and this book follows Margaret Hale as her family is forced to move from the idyllic Southern countryside to the harsh industrial city of Milton, based on Manchester, where Gaskell lived. There she meets the imposing factory owner Mr Thornton, whom she immediately dislikes, and with whom she initially disagrees on almost everything. Set against the backdrop of the first workers’ strikes, Gaskell provides important commentary on class dynamics, workers’ rights and gender roles, among many other social issues, all whilst creating a compelling enemies-to-lovers romance that rivals that of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy. The 2004 BBC adaptation is perfectly done, and captures Margaret’s transition from viewing the North as desolate and inhumane to a place full of life and feeling, sentiments which seem comforting in the dark winter months.

Phillip Pullman - The Northern Lights (1995)

“As if from Heaven itself, great curtains of delicate light hung and trembled.”

Northern Lights, Scholastic

The first in the ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy, Northern Lights takes place in an alternate version of Oxford, in a world ruled by the shadowy organisation of the Magisterium, where people’s souls exist outside their bodies in the form of daemons. The protagonist, Lyra, is forced to confront sinister truths as she tries to find her missing friend, a journey which takes her into the snowy land of Svalbard, home of the armoured bears. Pullman’s magical world epitomises the duality of winter, at times cosy and comforting and at others dangerous and awe-inspiring. Although considered a children’s book, it is infinitely re-readable, and in fact older readers will appreciate Pullman’s commentary on organised religion on a deeper level.

Phillip Pullman - The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ (2010)

"There is time, and there is what is beyond time. History belongs to time, but truth belongs to what is beyond time. In writing of things as they should have been, you are letting truth into history. You are the word of God."

Piero della Francesca, ‘The Resurrection’, 1470

Although this is another Pullman novel, it is quite different from Northern Lights, and aimed towards older audiences. Essentially a reimagining of the New Testament, this book sees Jesus Christ as two characters, twin brothers named Jesus and Christ, who have contrasting personalities: Jesus is strong and moral while Christ is cunning and introspective. By reframing the well-known story in this way, Pullman pulls it apart and forces the reader to confront its inconsistencies and sometimes questionable messages. Pullman’s fascination with the concept of organised religion, and his criticism of it, connect this book with ‘His Dark Materials’, and mark it as a provocative read for the months following Christmas, when Christianity is perhaps most visible in everyday life.

Kiran Desai - The Inheritance of Loss (2006)

"Could fulfilment ever be felt as deeply as loss?”

The Inheritance of Loss, Penguin

Winter feels like a time of nostalgia in many ways, and Desai’s second novel deals with the themes of past versus present, and the liminal feeling of living between two worlds that seems fitting for the end of one year and the start of the next. The setting of the book is split between the mountainous Kalimpong region in West Bengal, where an old judge stuck in his westernised customs lives with his orphaned granddaughter, and the United States where the son of the judge’s cook is living illegally, trying to earn a new life for himself. Desai artfully portrays issues of conflicting identity in a post-colonial India, where those stuck in the past are contrasted with the younger, more radical generation, represented by the Gorkhaland movement which adds another political dimension to the story.

Wilkie Collins - The Woman in White (1859)

“Our words are giants when they do us an injury, and dwarfs when they do us a service.”

The Woman in White, Penguin Classics

Wilkie Collins was a contemporary and good friend of Charles Dickens, and although less well-known, was a greatly important figure in Victorian literature. This book is an early example of detective fiction, and is cleverly told through the narrations of multiple characters. The opening scene sees the protagonist, Walter Hartright, come face to face with a woman dressed all in white. Walter is engaged as a drawing teacher to the beautiful Laura Fairlie, but soon becomes involved in a sinister plot involving mistaken identity, insanity, and poison. Combining Gothic horror with psychological realism, the book is extremely gripping, with an eerie quality that is reminiscent of a dark, icy road in winter.

Make sure you check out The Broad’s other seasonal picks on the creative section of our website!

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