Writers on reading: Frank Kafka
I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.
Source: Translated from a letter to the art historian Oskar Pollak January 27, 1904.
What Kafka is advocating I think is a reading experience in which the words provoke a reaction in you the reader. Texts which slip effortlessly in and out of your consciousness have little value in his estimation, the true test of a good book is one which forces you to engage with it; to take hold of your emotions and move them in some way. That’s a tall order but if you find a book that does it, the experience can be breathtaking.
Have I read anything that wounded or stabbed me? Very few in fact but maybe that’s not such a bad thing.
From my teenage days Albert Camus’ L’Estranger comes to mind as a book that affected me not just as I read it but for a long time afterwards even though I wasn’t absolutely sure I understood it fully. My thirties were my fallow years when though I enjoyed many books, I can barely remember them. It wasn’t until my forties when I decided to start a formal course in literature again that I began reading more deeply and found some novels which were remarkable. Of them, Emile Zola’s L’Assommoir with its bleak portrayal of life in an impoverished French community, could definitely be considered as giving me a ‘blow to the head’. And then, more recently my adventures in reading authors from far flung corners of the world led me to a discovery of a book equally painful to read – Petals of Blood by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o.