The reviewer writes a syndicated ski column from Washington
There are some books that make you smack yourself on the forehead and say "Dummy, why didn't you think of that?"
"The Ski Book" is just such a book. It is, very simply, an anthology of writing about skiing. Maybe it took time to research, maybe the decisions were difficult ones, maybe there were many arguments among the editors about which pieces to include and which to discard, but the genius of the book is that someone thought of it.
Like many other sports, skiing has a cachet, an attraction that goes beyond the physical exercise. Unlike baseball and football, skiing is a solitary sport, one that pits the skier against the mountain, not another team. It is a good metaphor for the human relationship to nature for that reason.
But few of the pieces in the book dwell on the metaphysical. Most of them stay in the realm the editors are familiar with: How to ski and why.
The book was edited by Morten Lund, Bob Gillen and Michael Bartlett. Lund, particularly, is the kind of writer and skier who hustles after the story assignments that will allow him to do what he knows and does best: write and ski. His two pieces in the anthology, especially "The Two Million Dollar Ski Man" about Lowell Thomas, attest to his skill.
The 45 other writers range from Percy Bysshe Shelley (you don't think Shelley knows anything about skiing; listen to this: "Thou hast a voice, great Mountain to repeal/ Large codes of fraud and woe; not understood/By all, but which the wise, and great, and good,/Interpret, or make felt, or deeply feel") to Art Buchwald ("Instead of barter, the St. Moritzers use a currency called 'money.' Some of them save up this money all year long, then bale it and bring it with them. Each bale of money can be traded for one hot chocolate, which is a favorite drink.")
Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Mann, John Cheever, Irwin Shaw, John Updike, Robert Frost, Leon Uris, Gay Talese and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle are all represented. But the best pieces are by the skiers. "Skiing the Polar Snow" by the 19th century explorer Fridtjof Nansen is a paean to the ideals of snow:
"Is it such a deplorable fate to dash off like the wind, with all the dogs skipping around one, over the boundless expanse of ice, through a night like this, in the fresh, crackling frost, while the snowshoes skis glide over the smooth surface, so that you scarcely know you are touching the earth, and the stars hang high in the blue vault above? This is more, indeed, than one has any right to expect of life; it is a fairy tale from another world, from a life to come."
There is a section on the development of skiing, from the discovery in 1909 of the stem christie that led to today's downhill skiing to an exposition on how a ski resort is created. There are two articles on the life of a ski bum; back-to-back articles by Aspen hotelier Marty Sterling and novelist Leon Uris in which each writes about the other; and a ski instructor's guide to watching ski races that is probably the best explanation of what ski racing is all about.
Ski racing and speed are well covered. Perhaps most compelling is Dick Dorworth's "In Pursuit of Pure Speed," which looks at the hows and whys, and finally at the tragedy that makes it at once meaningless and noble.
"More than anything I wanted not to fall. Probably there is little difference in the end result of a fall at 150 kph and one at 170 kph, but the ice that morning accentuated everything that was happening. Acceleration, Sound. The beating against the legs. The texture feeling. The thin line of error."
It is possible to quibble about what was and was not included in the book. Denise McCluggage, who is to skiing what Timothy Galwey is to tennis, writes as though English is not precise enough for her concepts. She defines and redefines what she says, and when that fails she makes up her own words. I. William Berry, like Lund a ski writer (but for a competing magazine), was left out. Berry's "The Skier's Almanac" is 300 pages of perfect prose and should be excerpted in any anthology of good ski writing.
But all is forgiven because my favorite ski story, the one I think of on hot summer days or when the rain has washed away the last vestige of snow on our local mountains, is included. This is Peter Miller's "Aspen's Greatest Day." As the introduction to the piece says, "The most exhilarating experience the skier can have is to hit a marvelous resort on its most marvelous day. It happens a few times in a lifetime for most recreational skiers. Even skiing-surfeited residents of ski towns will admit to having had a 'greatest day.' Here is one of those as it happened at Aspen, by a writer whose talent is sufficient to capture the sensations."
Miller's piece is difficult to quote because it hangs together so beautifully. But one sentence might suffice to encapsulate that perfect powder on that perfect day:
"Oh, God, what is this . . . the skiing is so fluid, it moves inside you--the snow is so light, silky, it slips around and over, then suddenly the snow is not out there but inside, it sweeps through the feet, up tingling the legs, touching the groin and settling in the gut."
Reading about skiing is almost as good as going skiing.