Norwegian Wood: a book review

It’s one of the publishing world’s more unusual sensations. Lars Mytting’s Norwegian Wood: Chopping, Stacking and Drying wood, the Scandinavian Way has sold an extraordinary 200,000 copies in Norway and Sweden. And now in translation it’s attracted a lot of media attention and further sales here. 

Just to clear up any confusion because sometimes a book’s quirky title is an uncertain guide to what lies between the covers. A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka is not actually a guide to Eastern European versions of the Massey Ferguson but a funny novel about family strife which interestingly enough was first written in English and only later translated into Ukrainian.

But Mytting’s book really is about cutting down trees and turning them into firewood. It’s a mixture of practical advice, social and industrial history and lyrical accounts about firewood production.

He produces statistics to show how wood remains an important fuel in Scandinavia. Even in oil rich Norway, a quarter of the energy used to heat private homes comes from burning firewood. The country demands that houses over a certain size must include an alternative heat source which usually means a wood burning stove. Unlike here wood is not treated as an appealing but ultimately unimportant form of energy.

There are potted histories about the making of axes and chainsaws. Mytting describes the sort of kit that’s now available on the market and offers advice on what to buy. For a range of reasons, however the information will not enable you to identify precisely the equipment you should purchase, with the exception perhaps of an odd looking axe called Vipukirves which was devised by a Finn ten years ago. The focus naturally is on the Scandinavian market, some of whose suppliers are not well represented here. The output of other European manufacturers is generally not highlighted and reviewed. And there’s little or nothing on prices which would enable one to make a choice on based on value. 

The book devotes only ten or so pages to seasoning wood though it does explain why it is best to chop logs in early Spring and dry them as quickly as possible. Apparently delaying the seasoning process for wood from deciduous trees will result in them never fully drying. The evolution of wood burning stoves is described in some detail and the advantages of modern versions pointed out. But again, the information wouldn’t really help you decide which manufacturer and certainly not which of their products you personally should select for your own home. It’s not that there are no practical tips to pick up here. I learned some useful ideas myself but not enough of them to justify buying the book.

The appeal of this publication derives from the enormous enthusiasm of the author and the woodsmen he profiles. There are lyrical accounts of wood handling accompanied with little bits of poetry. And of course it wouldn’t be a book about self sufficiency and the outdoors without quotes from Henry Thoreau’s Walden. 

Should you buy it for yourself or someone dear to you? Only if they are already a bit fanatical about wood cutting. Ultimately it’s not a how to guide for wood cutters here and nor is it a book for nature lovers. Trees are admired for their ability to produce good firewood not because of their appearance. I was quite taken with it but I doubt if it will command widespread appeal. 

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