I am not fond of the cold. At all. I live in Dublin, Ireland and it’s a place where your constant companion, even in summer, is a light jacket and not a book. Because you never know when the sun is going to hide behind the clouds and when the breeze is going to start whipping your hair with cold fingers. Yet, I was fascinated when I came across Nancy Campbell’s book on NetGalley. “The Library of Ice: Readings From a Cold Climate” promised to be a “vivid and perceptive book combining memoir, scientific and cultural history with a bewitching account of landscape and place.” How can you not be seduced by that delicious swirl?

Campbell’s icy journey begins when she is offered the position of a resident artist in Upernavik, Greenland. She was given a choice to go during the summer or in winter when “the darkness of the winter to many southerners seems like a terrible and nasty time lying in wait.” But Campbell finds the “idea of the terrible and nasty 24-hour polar night and the midwinter cold appealing,” and decides to go in January.

That’s how Campbell’s exploration of the nature of ice begins. She marvels at the Greenlandic way of life, which is still predominantly pre-modern, dominated by hunting and fishing. She learns how the landscape, particularly the ice and the glaciers, has played a big role in shaping the people’s traditions and life even till today. She learns their legends and myths. And she falls in love.

For the next seven years Campbell goes to museums and libraries, meets with scientists and explorers and learns how ice has been instrumental in building entire societies. She travels on a shoestring budget where she “sofa-surfed for a few nights, or spent the night on a train concourse, or holed up in an airport or bus station toilet cubicle…” And although she “has no desire to go to Antarctica” (I wonder why) she does go to far flung areas in New Zealand, Iceland, and Scotland.

Amidst accounts from her wanderings Campbell weaves in innumerable facts about voyagers and explorers who navigated treacherous ice and made detailed notes of their observations.  Quotes from their notes or diaries that she reads from libraries or museums abound. We learn of pristine landscapes along coasts glittering with ice formations, and of ecosystems that are impacted by the changing nature of ice. One of the most interesting narratives for me was the story of Otzi. I also relished reading some of the folklores and spiritual beliefs attached to the places she visits.

Yet, I found myself drifting off in the middle, not unlike a glacier, my brain meandering just like Campbell’s writing. With her sources for the book as varied as figures from science and history and art and music Campbell cannot help but wander in and out of topics and discussions, sometimes abruptly. I found this slightly jarring and found myself losing the thread of thought many times especially when there is a long series of verbatim quotes. Her writing, when it shines through subjectively, is exquisite and poetic. But sadly we don’t get a lot of that.

Having said that, I wouldn’t discourage you to read the book. It’s definitely an entertaining and educational read. Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for sending me the ARC for a review!

Image credit: Simon and Schuster

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