In view of the polar vortex that has descended on the North American continent, I thought we'd offer a reprise of an exceptionally frosty Tale for Our Time - one of the greatest and yet simplest tales in all of literature.
Last year, on one of the coldest days of the year in New Hampshire, I chanced to stop at a local diner and overheard two hipster doofuses (I generalize for the purpose of cheap scoffing), from Dartmouth or the University of Vermont or some such, heading up to the Quebec border to hike. And, after an observation on the temperature and the windchill, one of them brought up this famous Jack London story - "To Build a Fire. Ever read it?"
And the other guy said yeah, they'd had to do it in school, and they both remembered the essentials of the pared down plot - a man and a dog heading up the Yukon Trail on a cold day to meet up with the boys - and then one said, amazingly, "Yeah, I can't remember how it ends." "Me neither."
So this weekend's story is especially dedicated to those fellows, assuming they're not dead of hypothermia somewhere up around Jay. My reading of Jack London's To Build a Fire is of the 1908 text, but, as I note in my audio introduction, there was an earlier version, from a boys' periodical called The Youth's Companion in 1902. Here's how London opened that first bite at the cherry:
For land travel or seafaring, the world over, a companion is usually considered desirable. In the Klondike, as Tom Vincent found out, such a companion is absolutely essential. But he found it out, not by precept, but through bitter experience. 'Never travel alone,' is a precept of the north. He had heard it many times and laughed; for he was a strapping young fellow, big-boned and big-muscled, with faith in himself and in the strength of his head and hands.
That's all true, but also a bit crudely explanatory. Six years later, he had learned the virtues of showing, not telling. And so the 1908 version begins:
Day had broken cold and gray, exceedingly cold and gray, when the man turned aside from the main Yukon trail and climbed the high earth-bank, where a dim and little traveled trail led eastward through the fat spruce timberland. It was a steep bank, and he paused for breath at the top, excusing the act to himself by looking at his watch. It was nine o'clock. There was no sun nor hint of sun, though there was not a cloud in the sky. It was a clear day, and yet there seemed an intangible pall over the face of things, a subtle gloom that made the day dark, and that was due to the absence of sun. This fact did not worry the man. He was used to the lack of sun. It had been days since he had seen the sun, and he knew that a few more days must pass before that cheerful orb, due south, would just peep above the sky-line and dip immediately from view.
...which introduces us to the other character in the story: The land. And what follows is a kind of dialogue between these two characters: a man and a cruel climate. To hear To Build a Fire, prefaced by my own introduction to the story, Mark Steyn Club members should click here and log-in.
We launched The Mark Steyn Club in the summer, and I'm very touched by all those SteynOnline supporters across the globe - from Fargo to Fiji, Vancouver to Vanuatu, Cook County to the Cook Islands - who've signed up to be a part of it. As I said at the time, membership isn't for everyone, but it is a way of ensuring that all our content remains available for everyone - all my columns, audio interviews, video content, all our movie features and songs of the week. None of it's going behind a paywall, because I want it out there in the world, being read and being heard and being viewed, and maybe changing an occasional mind somewhere along the way.
Nevertheless, we are admitting Club members to a few experimental features which, in the event that they're sufficiently non-incompetent, we may eventually make more widely available. Tales for Our Time is our series of monthly audio adventures. So far we've presented radio serializations of classic fiction by Conan Doyle, H G Wells, Conrad, Kipling, Dickens, Anthony Hope, Scott Fitzgerald - plus a piece of non-classic fiction by yours truly. You can find them all here - and either enjoy them episodically as a book at bedtime twenty minutes before you lower your lamp over the next two nights, or as one binge blowout to listen to on a longish car journey come Sunday. I always like reading stories, and I did do a little of it professionally a zillion years ago. So, if these fancies tickle you, we may release them as audio books on CD or Audible a ways down the road.
If you've enjoyed our monthly Steyn Club radio serials and you're looking for a present for a fellow fan of classic fiction, I hope you'll consider our limited-time-only Club Gift Membership, which includes your choice of a personally autographed book or CD set from yours truly. Aside from Tales for Our Time, The Mark Steyn Club does come with other benefits:
~Exclusive Steyn Store member pricing on over 40 books, mugs, T-shirts, and other products;
~The opportunity to engage in live Clubland Q&A sessions with yours truly (such as this Tuesday's);
~Transcript and audio versions of The Mark Steyn Show, SteynPosts, and our other video content;
~Our new video series of classic poetry;
~Advance booking for my live appearances around the world;
~Customized email alerts for new content in your areas of interest;
~and the chance to support our print, audio and video ventures as they wing their way around the planet.
One other benefit to membership is our Comment Club privileges. So, if you like my reading of To Build a Fire or consider it frosts up the joint like February in the Yukon, then feel free to comment away below. Stay warm - and join us next weekend for a brand new Tale for Our Time.