Book review: Norwegian Wood captures the allure of a woodpile
Lars Mytting’s unusual bestseller is a song of praise to an honest, solid and reassuringly ancient world
by Lars Mytting
It is intriguing that for decades “wooden” has been a decidedly pejorative description. Now, at last, wood is being rehabilitated. More than that: it is suddenly fashionable, and Norwegian Wood has become one of the most uplifting publishing stories of 2015.
A simple, elegant book about how to fell trees – about how to move the timber and then split and stack the logs in the most efficient, aesthetic ways – it has at last been translated into English and is one of those books, full of lush, earthy photos, that people seem to become almost evangelical about.
The reason for its appeal is clear: in this depressing age of bombs and bullets, of financial instability and screen-mediated reality, there is something honest, solid and reassuringly ancient about wood. As Lars Mytting says about the woodpile: “Its share price doesn’t fall on the stock market. It won’t rust. It won’t sue for divorce. It just stands there and does one thing: it waits for winter. An investment account reminding you of all the hard work you’ve put into it.”
Mytting makes a convincing case for the superiority of wood compared to other forms of heating: the glass doors of stoves radiate heat, he says, and the flames and glowing embers release electromagnetic, infrared radiation rather like sunlight, bringing “a feeling of well-being and security”. The intake of oxygen encourages air circulation and the stoves absorb dust. Add the smell of woodsmoke, and the hypnotic dance of the flames, and one understands “the primordial magic of the fireplace”. Something we actually need, he quips, really does grow on trees.
The book is a sort of how-to guide for amateur and professional, alike. There is plenty of intriguing advice about clever ways to move logs using nature: sliding a trunk on ice or, the oldest and easiest means of transport, floating it on water.
There are many great tips, such as the old Norwegian habit of smearing the ends of chopped logs with snow: the morning sun melts it, and come nightfall it will freeze, stretching apart the fibres so that it cleaves with the first blow of your axe.
There is lots of folklore too. In Scandinavia, he says, it is common wisdom that you can tell a lot about a person from their log store, and women looking for a potential husband would always investigate how he stacked his wood.