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.
9 thoughts on “Writers on reading: Frank Kafka”
If the books I read affect me like the death of someone I love, I would give up reading altogether. I had a similar experience to yours reading L’Etranger and L’Assomoir: the latter disturbed me to the point of giving up on Zola since then. I regret this because much more than irritating me, I indulged in rereading parts of the book because of Zola’s style. This is why I read, for the pleasure of reading itself. This is why I might abandon a newspaper article as poignant as it might be, if it is written dryly or if it is so direct as to wrench an emotional reaction out of me. Style will always matter to me.
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I agree that this is one of the greatest values of reading literature, however, I also believe reading can be an activity completed simply for comfort and enjoyment. Some of those books that have literally hit me on the head or punched me in the gut: most recently Growin’ Up White by Dwight Ritter and The Same Sky by Amanda Eyre Ward, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo, Black Water Rising by Attica Locke, LIttle Bee by Chris Cleave, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah, The Elephant Whisperer by Lawrence Anthony and Graham Spence, To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee (when I was 13). I know there are others. But these are the ones I can recall at present,.
what a wonderful list Lynn – I don’t know most of them so will enjoy exploring. The Mumbai Undercity one has me intrigued the most since I was recently in the city.
It was amazing! I think that one hit me the hardest and in many different ways. I CANNOT imagine “living” (barely so, in my opinion) under those circumstances and it was such an eye-opener. Most of my book club members couldn’t (or wouldn’t even try) to get through it. But each of these was amazing for me! 🙂 Good luck!
Oh, I love, love, love this … this is what I think art is really about but I hadn’t realised Kafka had said it. (I’m going to add it to my book quotes document). I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say we should “only” read such books, but I hate it when people don’t want to read “any” such books.
A good recent example for me of a book that “bit” me would be “A girl is a half-formed thing”. It’s a sad, unpleasant, confronting book but it is also beautiful – and it got right to the heart of how someone can feel so badly about their lives that they will self-harm, self-abuse, feel worthless.
Camus was probably the first author to really confront me too. And there have been many in between these two, but I think this is a start!
I’m thinking too that if we ‘only’ read the books kafka felt met his criterion that there could be some diminishing returns. If we mix up the reading a bit then do you notice the ones that hit you even more?
I think that is an excellent point!
Yes, it is probably good that every book or even every two or three books doesn’t provide the kind of experience Kafka calls for. We’d all be walking around like zombies and looking utterly devastated.