Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams is regarded as a nature writing classic. Friends and nature writing practitioners rave about it. Everyone kind of assumed I must have read it. I’d been meaning to get round to it for years, I really had, but, well, it is a pretty long book, and there were so many other books on my list to get through…
Let me be the last to say it: Arctic Dreams is a masterpiece. It’s an erudite blend of science, history, nature and memoir, written with wonderful insight and precision. If you haven’t read it yet, put it on your list immediately.
The early chapters deal primarily with Arctic climate and wildlife. Lopez gives his subject matter plenty of space to shine. These chapters brim with fascinating facts about muskoxen, polar bears, and narwhals. Later chapters cover other denizens of the region in slightly less detail, but still in plenty of depth.
The second half of the book becomes slightly less science- and nature-focused, exploring what it’s like to experience the Arctic. There are also two chapters on the history of Arctic exploration. Perhaps the key chapter of the book, for me, was one in which Lopez describes taking a short walk in the snow and ice, trying to see his surroundings as the local indigenous inhabitants or animals might. It was a surprisingly thought-provoking chapter.
The prose is magnificent: well-informed and lyrical, without being at all showy or pretentious. Lopez displays wonderful precision and economy with his words. The text is so precise, I often found myself referring to my dictionary to check the exact meanings of words I would happily use in conversation, just to make sure I hadn’t missed some subtle nuance in their meaning. I usually had. Lopez has a habit of identifying exactly the right word to use.
A short review like this can’t do this fantastic book justice. Do yourself a favour: if you haven’t done so already, make time in your hectic reading schedule for Arctic Dreams, and prepare to be swept away.
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