One of the distinctive features of Lars Mytting’s cult classic, Norwegian Wood, is that is touches the heart, the head, and the hands in equal measure. It’s like an equilibrium triangle of the literary arts, a rare feat in any language. You will want to go out and collect, chop, and stack wood while reading, even if don’t even own an axe. You will fantasize about visiting Norway on your next extended vacation, drawn in by his evocative accounts of the Scandinavian woods and countryside, with its perfectly stacked wood piles and warm, cozy, wood-heated interiors. And your mind will be stimulated by his informative account of 20th century European history as modern societies morphed from predominately rural to majority urban and expanding communities, with all the energy and heat-related demands that such a fundamental transformation entails.
Given the salient contemporary concerns with CO2 emissions and increasing average temperatures, the argument that wood-burning, high efficiency stoves may actually be better forms of heating a home than electric or natural gas may seem less convincing now than when first published in 2011, but the author makes his case quite well with a combination of precision and passion. The environmental arguments, however, strike with less force than his philosophical and social anthropological ones, however. For many Norwegians, collecting firewood is a way of life, a means to survive harsh winters and dark nights, and a multi-generational method for living locally using resources widely available within their homeland. Norway famously has never joined the European Union, and the traditions of self-sufficiency by struggling valiantly to survive in tune with the elements is deeply rooted in the culture. Global solutions are not on the table for Lars when it comes to his narrative of local axes, splitters, mauls, chainsaws, and wood-burning stoves. He favors Scandinavian inventions, tools, and techniques – and so do the women and men he interviews.
This is part of what makes Norwegian Wood such an equilibrium triangle of a read, as mentioned earlier: Lars uses his hands, thinks with his head, and feels with his heart when he writes about firewood. It is not an abstract or overly technical topic. As an appreciative reader of his text – and admirer of his beautiful photographs that illustrate the chapters – I came to appreciate his unique perspective and inspired point of view. I realized that he wasn’t out to proselytize the value of Scandinavian wood stacking for the world as a whole. Each part of the planet, he seems to suggest, has its own traditions for warming, cooling, and providing their dwellings with a sense of “home.” For Lars, there is no Norwegian “home” without the warm glow, comforting crackle, and flickering light of an open hearth fireplace or energy efficient, ultra-modern wood stove. He sees things through the precise lens of science but also with the creative, wide-open eyes of an artist. Few books about a topic as specialized as wood chopping, stacking, and drying have this ability to engage their readers so deeply, even those who will never stack a cord of wood in their lives. That is why I personally find this book is so special and recommend it highly to others in search of something new to add to their lives so that it they come to see their world differently. Norwegian Wood is a cult classic for a good reason!