The Idea of North

Peter Davidson

The Idea of North
Distribution by the University of Chicago Press only to customers in the USA and Canada. Customers elsewhere should visit the UK website of Reaktion Books.

Peter Davidson

Distributed for Reaktion Books

272 pages | 15 halftones | 6.15 x 9.25 | © 2004
E-book $15.50 to $34.00 ISBN: 9781861895639 Published April 2005
North is the point we look for on a map to orient ourselves. It is also the direction taken throughout history by the adventurous, the curious, the solitary, and the foolhardy. Based in the North himself, Peter Davidson, in The Idea of North, explores the very concept of "north" through its many manifestations in painting, legend, and literature.

Tracing a northbound route from rural England—whose mild climate keeps it from being truly northern—to the wind-shorn highlands of Scotland, then through Scandinavia and into the desolate, icebound Arctic Circle, Davidson takes the reader on a journey from the heart of society to its most far-flung outposts. But we never fully leave civilization behind; rather, it is our companion on his alluring ramble through the north in art and story. Davidson presents a north that is haunted by Moomintrolls and the ghosts of long-lost Arctic explorers but at the same time, somehow, home to the fragile beauty of a Baltic midsummer evening. He sets the Icelandic Sagas, Nabokov’s snowy fictional kingdom of Zembla, and Hans Christian Andersen’s cryptic, forbidding Snow Queen alongside the works of such artists as Eric Ravilious, Ian Hamilton Finlay, and Andy Goldsworthy, demonstrating how each illuminates a different facet of humanity’s relationship to the earth’s most dangerous and austere terrain.

Through the lens of Davidson’s easy erudition and astonishing range of reference, we come to see that the north is more a goal than a place, receding always before us, just over the horizon, past the last town, off the edge of the map. True north may be unreachable, but The Idea of North brings intrepid readers closer than ever before.
Introduction: True North
I. Histories
—Ideas of North from Antiquity to the Twentieth Century
—Treasures and Marvels of the North
II. Imaginations of North
—Ice and Glass
—The North in the 1930s: Auden and Ravilious
—Imagined Northern Territories
—Northern Summer
—Northern Exile
III. Topographies
—Japan and China
Epilogue: Keeping the Twilight
Photographic Acknowledgements
Review Quotes
London Review of Books
“The nearer he gets to the North of England and Scotland the more deeply felt his writing becomes . . . marvelously sensitive.”
The Guardian
“[The north] is roamed in fascinating, suggestive fashion. . . . Davidson is as interested in writing about snow sculptures and seventeenth-century paintings of the arctic as he is about Auden, and his reading of the imaginary land of Zembla in Nabokov’s Pale Fire as an eternal, symbolic north is highly evocative . . . [a] lovely book.”
Jane Perry | The Observer
“From the Old Norse sagas to the fairytales of Hans Christian Andersen, from the films of Bergman to the paintings of Eric Ravilious, from Nabakov’s Zembla to Simon Armitage’s Yorkshire, [Davidson] finds that the north is a breeding ground for ghosts, a place of exile and punishment, the antithesis of the human. Yet its bleak landscapes have inspired poetry of great beauty: ice, crystal, diamond, and glass all blur in recurring images. . . . Davidson never lets his learning cloud his enthusiasm for this wide and protean subject and his writing shares the awe of the poets who preceded him on this journey.”
Christina Hardyment | The Independent
“Beside being a discriminating critic, Davidson has an arrestingly personal voice. . . . The Idea of North is one of those books that have you making a long list of references you want to follow.”
Verlyn Klinkenborg | Discover
“This is a book about poetry, myth, and art, and the myriad ways in which artists, poets, and explorers have filtered the north’s stark natural splendor through their imaginations. . . . Davidson has compiled an extraordinary catalog of the shapes the north has taken in the minds of humans . . . a work of genuine erudition, guiding readers northward out of their home ground and into unknown territory.”
“There are indeed a lot of norths to cover, and the charm of the book is it exhaustiveness, zooming into a variety of touchstones to show how they’ve influenced global culture in sly, often surprising ways . . . Davidson’s north is an enormous, challenging land: humbling, shifting, austere, empty, fragile, desolate, desolating, marginal, authentic—a place, as Davidson perfectly puts it, forever suffused with ‘absolute, difficult beauty.”
Tom Adair | The Scotsman
“Mesmerising cultural history . . . Davidson’s style achieves a lyric expression of phrase. In several passages of personal recollection . . . he achieves a marvel of descriptiveness that is moving as well as expressive.”
Melanie Reid | The Glasgow Herald
“[A] delightful work . . . beautifully written . . . an esoteric but important gem; original treasure from the north.”
Tom Shippey | Times Literary Supplement
“An interesting meditation.”
Max Jones | Times Higher Education Supplement
“Provocative . . . Davidson’s evocative prose and sensitive analyses of an impressive range of sources heighten the reader’s appreciation of the rich complexity of humanity’s imagined Norths.”
Scottish Review of Books
“A masterpiece . . . The Idea of North reminded me of Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory in taking a vast and shifting subject and reducing it to clarity, radically changing the way we look at a history. . . . It is hard to imagine writing a better book within the terms Davidson has set for himself . . . beyond being merely clever or wise: a beautiful book. He ends with a magnificent couple of pages entitled ‘Keeping the Twilight,’ a description, from his study, of the fading hours of the northern winter day. His last two sentences are perfect abstract expressionist description of North.”
Richard Price | Scotland on Sunday
“[A] gifted prose writer.”
Duncan Rice | Scottish Sunday Herald
"A masterpice. . . . It’s the kind of book which provokes the gasp of recognition at concepts one has often groped for but never managed to articulate."
Rosalie Osmond | The Tablet
"This book is not just about the north; it is a plea for the north, a moving description of what it has given and still offers us."
Aberdeen Evening Express
“A truly stunning assessment of the concept of ‘north’ in literature, legend, history, and the psyche of ‘Northern’ people. . . . Davidson writes with an incredible sense of place.”
Alexandra Harris, author of Weatherland
“One of the most beautiful books I’ve read . . . Davidson’s taste is both baroque and ascetic; his prose is correspondingly extravagant and refined. This is cultural history at its very best, unfolding new maps of imagination.”
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