By this time of year, polar vortex or El Niño, it doesn’t matter: It feels like winter will never end.

The up side, of course, is long hours for reading. No point in going outside after the sun has gone down and the sidewalks have iced over and the wind is cutting through your down jacket — might as well settle in. But with what? What is the best kind of book to read when it has been January forever, and it is still January, and it is cold, and dark (not as dark as late December, but still very dark)?

Do you crave books about winter? “The Snow Queen,” and her glittering heart of ice; “81 Days Below Zero: The Incredible Survival Story of a World War II Pilot in Alaska’s Frozen Wilderness,” by Brian Murphy, dead bodies scattered across the windblown ice; “The Long Winter,” with Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family enduring blizzard after blizzard, finally resorting to twisting straw into hard knots for burning so that they don’t freeze?


Or maybe you crave hot-weather books, books that will help you take your mind off the cold?

Maybe something by Graham Greene (South America), or Carl Hiaasen (south Florida), or Pat Conroy (South Carolina).

Me, I like big, fat books in the winter, books that will swallow me up for hours, books that I can read (as clichéd as it sounds) on the couch by the fireplace, a polar-fleece blanket over my knees and my dog sleeping on my feet (and hopefully not barking when people walk past our front window).

Bring me another cocoa. Turn up the lamp. Be quiet, Rosie.

Here are my recommendations: five fat books to get you over the hump of January and into February. As Pa Ingalls said hopefully in “The Long Winter,” “February is a short month and March will be spring.”

(Pa was an optimist.)

1. Time to read “Anna Karenina.” Yep. All the way through to the end, Russian names and all. Come on, guys, you can do it: The passion, the dancing, the peasants, the tragedy — it’s a great book. You won’t look up from the page until the first dandelion bud has pushed up through your frozen lawn.

2. “Moby-Dick.” No, I haven’t read it. Not all of it, anyway. I will, I will. But you should — the great novel about Captain Ahab’s search for the whale that bit off his leg — and then let me know how it ends. (Does he get his leg back? Do he and the whale make up?)

3. “Wolf Hall,” Hilary Mantel’s novel about Thomas Cromwell in the court of King Henry VIII. The great thing about this book is, once you’re done you can read the sequel, “Bring Up the Bodies.” And maybe by the time you finish that book, Mantel will have finished the trilogy.

4. “Vanity Fair,” William Thackeray’s wonderful social satire starring the feisty and cunning Becky Sharp. At 900 pages, it’ll keep you busy for a while.

5. Anything by William T. Vollmann. Vollmann is famous for his gargantuan books; “Rising Up and Rising Down,” his treatise on violence and terrorism, was originally 3,298 pages (published by McSweeney’s in 2003 in seven volumes), although he later agreed to “truncate” the book to about 750 pages for the one-volume edition. Perhaps winter needs to be a whole lot longer.

Have a suggestion for a great winter book to read? Send it to, and I’ll run your ideas in a future column. It’s only January. Winter isn’t going anywhere yet.


Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune senior editor for books and a board member of the National Book Critics Circle. On Twitter: @StribBooks. On Facebook: