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‘Below Zero’ Book Review: Behold the Beauty of Life Lived in the Cold

Depending on your perspective, the pictures you’ll find in Below Zero: Adventures Out in the Cold will fill your heart with yearning or make you recoil. Of the 255 pages in this gorgeous new coffeetable-sized book from Gestalten, the majority are filled with full color pictures dominated largely by shades of but two colors: white and blue. This is a book filled with photography, essays, and reflections by and about those intrepid souls who spend much of their lives in the parts of our globe where snow and ice hold sway. Though perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the Below Zero book is about these beautiful but savage places themselves; the people serve as focalizers, not as the focus.

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I certainly understand if seeing an endless tableau of frigid tundra in which a few lonely human beings are all but lost among the miles of snowdrifts looks like a mild version of hell to your eyes. To me, it’s the opposite. Save for the few pages dedicated to swimming in frigid waters sans wet or dry suit, an activity that does indeed look to me like hell on earth (the section “Submerged in Ice Swimming’s Glacial Waters” starts on page 68 if you want to cut to the chase), almost every image I see and every word I read of this book makes me long for the frosty nip of winter-chilled breezes, the crunch of snow under boot, and the hours dedicated to slow, steady travel through a frozen wonderland.But that’s me — I like the cold, ideally when delivered via mountain. However, the great thing about a book is that it offers you some experience of a given place, person, or activity from the comfort of your own living room. (In case you didn’t know that about books …)

As usual with the books from Berlin’s celebrated Gestalten publishing house, you can approach Below Zero in a few ways. The first thing most people will do, myself very much included, is look at the pictures. I recommend you start with the first page and flip slowly and steadily through the whole thing, as even the least arresting photos in the book are striking in their own way. (Not every picture is of a team of mountaineers trekking across a massive glacier or of motorcycle racers competing in an alpine snow race; some are of people clearing snow from their driveways or of postmen delivering mail in a blizzard.)

You can also set out to read the book from cover to cover, but frankly, this is probably the wrong course for many readers. While all of the writing in the book is competent, not all of the subject matter is likely to appeal to all readers. Once you have seen all the pictures, I recommend flipping through and reading the sections that truly interest you. As a hiker, camper, and occasional mountaineer, I zeroed in on the the pages under the heading “Treading New and Yet Unspoiled Hiking Paths” (page 166 through 177, FYI) and was filled with about equal parts of awe and envy. As for images of figure skaters dancing atop massive frozen lakes and the accompanying essay? Well, to me that’s a pass, but maybe that’s what you’re in to.

As with other Gestalten coffee-table, art/essay books, the layout here is a bit hard to follow. The index lists a blend of places, writers, and photographers by alphabetical order, but it does not give the names or subject matter of the content. In other words, if you want to figure out what this book has to offer, you need to spend some time and go exploring. But, of course, the metaphor in that isn’t lost on anyone.

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Steven John
Steven John is a writer and journalist living just outside New York City, by way of 12 years in Los Angeles, by way of…
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