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May 06 , 2011

The Idea of North


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.
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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.
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