Winter is the best season for reading. For me it’s a habit that goes back to age 18, when my parents and younger brother moved to Kentucky while I stayed in our house on Long Lake. College wasn’t working out, so I decided to spend the winter educating myself.
Every morning I walked down the hill to the lake, cut holes in the ice with an iron spud, and set tip-ups baited with minnows. I returned to the house, built a fire in the fireplace, made breakfast, and started reading. I would read for 10 or 12 hours, breaking only to tend the fire and to go to the picture window and inspect my tip-ups through binoculars. If a fish grabbed my bait and began unspooling line, the tip-up’s red flag sprang upright. Then I would rush to put on my boots and coat and run down to see what I had caught. I still have the log I kept that winter, with its hand-drawn map keyed to every fish: a four-pound walleye from the hole out from the neighbor’s oak, two small walleye and a pike at the drop-off, a seven-pound brown trout in the deep water near the island. I ate well most days. Broiled walleye filets in the oven, made hashbrowns of just the right color and crispness. Sometimes friends came by to share the bounty, but usually I ate alone at the kitchen table, facing the lake. Even while I ate, I read.
Vonnegut, Kerouac, Updike, Thomas Wolfe and Virginia Woolf — I discovered many great authors that year, mostly men, because I was trying to become one myself. I also found writers with Michigan connections, for I wanted to think of home as a subject worthy of literature. Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories electrified me; here was northern Michigan brought vividly to life. Other Michigan writers were new to me, including historian Bruce Catton, novelist and essayist Robert Traver, and poet/novelist Jim Harrison.
The more I read, the more I wanted to read. One evening many years later, when my son Aaron was 17, he looked up from his dinner with a stricken expression and said, “Even while I’m eating I’m getting hungry.” My appetite for books was like that.
By spring I was not only a reader, but a writer. And although little I wrote would have been of interest to others, I noticed that every now and then, maybe once every five pages, a sentence jumped a few inches into the air and gave off some voltage. Filling notebooks that winter with clumsy sentences struggling to be true was the first significant act of my adulthood and set the course of my life.
All these years later winter is still reading season. It might not be strictly true — no season is ever quite as roomy as we imagine it will be. But on many winter evenings, while the wind howls outside and snowflakes streak across the windows, I’ll sit with my wife on the couch, reading our books under yellow lamplight, sensing the richness of the season — and know that I’m a lucky man.
Award-winning author and BLUE columnist Jerry Dennis lives in Traverse City.