The temperature outside my window this evening is minus-26 degrees. The windchill is somewhere in the minus-30s. It will get still colder tonight, yet, for this part of the world, this is nothing special. In normal times, I would think nothing of heading out to see friends, visit a café, watch a movie. But these are not normal times. There is a virus in the world and that, much more than the cold, keeps me close to home.
Christmas has passed. New Years has passed. Psychologically at least, Valentine's and Easter seem forever in the future. This is one of those splendid in-between times. Now is the time, we believe, for serious reading.
We have ambitions, of course. This winter, we think, we're finally going to tackle "The Brothers Karamazov." But we don't. In the very deep cold of winter on the northern prairie, in the space we have between events and obligations and the busywork of simply keeping ourselves alive, I believe we want something different.
I believe we are looking for faith. I do not mean a theological foundation, though. I mean faith that the virus will pass, one way or another, and we will be able to place our boots on unfamiliar paths. Faith that the world we once knew still exists. It's a simple wish.
There is nothing new about the idea that literature is both transformative and transportive. Every new book changes our orientation to the universe, even if only slightly. And every new or revisited book takes us away. So, when we are housebound because of the cold as well as the plague, there is something necessary about travel writing. Please, we think, the planet is large. Show me a part of the human heart I have not yet imagined.
This particular evening I'm standing in front of my bookshelf and the choices are both obvious and difficult. I could revisit Antarctica with Apsley Cherry-Garrard's "The Worst Journey in the World." Reading it again would allow me a kind of ego boost, to believe my Minnesota winter is in some degree the same as their experience on the ice. I could read Shackleton's "South" again or I could read Gontran de Poncins' "Kabloona," if I wanted to revisit the Arctic instead. I could read Elaine Sciolino's "The Only Street in Paris" or Peter Chilson's "Disturbance-Loving Species." I have loved these books in the past and they would appear as old and familiar friends as I sit, wrapped in a sweater, in my reading chair.
But revisiting old books is also a type of escapism, a step away from the opportunity to be freshly challenged and unnerved. In hard winter, in a time of plague, I should go exploring terra incognita.
The new Best American Travel anthology is out, so this is where I begin. I almost immediately put it down. What did I expect? The collection, this year, begins with COVID. I do not want to spend my evenings reading about being trapped on a virus-filled cruise ship; nor do I want to imagine how COVID affects a food writer's experiences. I keep going, though, and the anthology does take me well beyond the sick room.
But here's both the issue and the promise. If all I want is comforting news from far away, I can stare at pictures in a field guide. That's not what literature does. The fact that I turned away from travel stories about COVID says a lot more about my weariness than my taste. So I do go back. What I learn, what I am able to vicariously experience, is profound. That is what literature does. In the most difficult part of winter, in a world where the temperature of the air could kill me and breathing is a threat, travel writing gives me empathy, and faith that we are all in this together.
W. Scott Olsen is a writer and professor in Moorhead, Minn.