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.
This year’s Book Expo America kicks off today but since I can’t make it across the Atlantic for the in person event, I’ll have to content myself with joining in the armchair version. I’ll be in good company since this virtual form of participation is a really popular idea, giving bloggers around the world a chance to connect and talk about the topic we all have in common − books and reading.
This is the third time I’ll have participated in Armchair BEA. As in past years the organisers have come up with some good topics for us to talk about on each day of the event. Hence you’ll see a lot more activity on BookerTalk this week. I’m also going to make a conscious effort to read more of the posts contributed by other participants.
To kick off, here is the post where we introduce ourselves with the aid of some questions from our hosts.
What genre do you read the most?
My reading falls into three categories right now: novels that have won the Booker Prize; books that loosely can be called classics and novels written by authors from parts of the world outside my own experience. I do occasionally read non fiction but
What was your favorite book read last year?
I don’t use a star rating system otherwise this would be an easy one to answer, I’d just look up the books I awarded five stars. Looking at the list of what I read in 2013 it would be very difficult to choose just one title so I’m going to bend the rules a bit and select one favourite from each of the three categories of books I tend to read.
In my Booker Prize list, my favourite was John Banville’s The Sea. I know it wasn’t a popular choice for the prize but I loved the lyrical style of his writing.
From my classics club list I’m choosing Grahame Greene’s Heart of the Matter. It was actually a re-read which tells you something about how much I love this book.
From my world literature list I’m selecting Petals of Blood by the Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. It was the hardest book I read all year because of its subject but well worth the effort.
What’s your favorite book so far this year?
It has to be Emile Zola’s L’Assommoir. This is the third book from his Rougon–Macquart series I’ve read and I was hoping it would be on a par with the other two (Germinal and La Bete Humaine) and it was. An absolutely gripping novel about poverty and desperation in nineteenth century Paris.
What is your favorite blogging resource?
Apart from the many, many other bloggers whose sites give me inspiration, some of the websites I make a point of reading will be familiar to most bloggers I suspect — like Book Riot or Publishing Perspectives. I also enjoy The Bookseller though haven’t taken the plunge to get a regular subscription yet; I just buy an edition if I see something that interests me.
Share your favorite book or reading related quote.
This comes from my favourite book of all time, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, a book which if I were in the undesirable situation of being stuck on a desert island would be my must have companion.
“If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”
A wonderful surprise awaited me on my return from an intense working week in snow-clad Eastern USA — a signed copy of Christos Tsiolkas’s newest novel Barracuda which I won via National Book Tokens. I never got around to reading his best seller The Slap but this latest novel is apparently equally provocative in the way it questions what it means to be Australian.
But first I have to finish two other novels: Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger which won the 1987 Booker Prize and New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani. By complete coincidence they both deal with memory and are partly set in World War 2. The first is a brilliantly constructed novel in which a secret love affair is revealed by an old woman as she lies dying in a hospital bed. The second is a novel I started reading on the flight home. It’s a curious story about a man found beaten up at a dockside in Trieste – he can’t remember anything about his life, not even his name. The Finnish doctor who treats him thinks he must be Finnish (purely on the basis of a name found inside his jacket) and sets about trying to teach him that language in the hope it will rekindle his memory.
These two are such a contrast to the novel that sustained me through the long flight out and the wintry nights that followed. Emile Zola’s L’Assommoir has been sitting on my book shelf for at least four years — quite why I delayed reading it for so long, I’m not sure since I’ve loved every other novel I’ve read by him and Germinal is one of my all-time favourites. Maybe I was afraid L’Assommoir wouldn’t be as good but fortunately it’s turned out to be equally as riveting.
So in all February has been a good month. I’ll keep my fingers and toes crossed that March turns out the same. I’ll be reading E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View which is the book I landed up with after the Classics Club spin and probably something from my World Literature list but I haven’t decided what that will be yet. Abyssinian Chronicles by Moses Isegawa and Dublinesque by Enrique Vila-Matas are both calling for my attention. I suspect it will depend what mood I’m in at the point when I’m ready to begin a new book.