‘Altogether,’ Kafka wrote in 1904 to his friend Oskar Pollak, ‘I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading doesn’t shake us awake like a blow on the skull, why bother reading it in the first place? So that it can make us happy, as you put it? Good God, we’d be just as happy if we had no books at all; books that make us happy we could, at a pinch, also write ourselves. What we need are books that hit us like a most painful misfortune, like the death of someone we loved more than we love ourselves, that make us feel as though we had been banished to the woods, far from any human presence, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is what I believe.’ -From The Nightmare of Reason: A Life of Franz Kafka by Ernst Pawel
The most famous part of the quote, “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us,” was in our church bulletin on Sunday. I googled it to find the context, but when I read it to Mike, he said, “You don’t agree with that, do you?” I don’t know. I like to read light, happy books sometimes. I have spent the summer intentionally seeking out books with lighter plotlines. But those aren’t my favorite kinds of books. Those aren’t usually the ones that stick with me and change my life. So what Kafka says resonates with me. The same thing that keeps me from reading very many silly romance novels or silly chick lit is also the same thing that keeps me from reading devotionals that don’t seem to acknowledge that life is messy, with pain and difficulties and questions.
Where I disagree with Kafka (that’s a bold thing to say, right?) is that he seems to believe that books that make us happy cannot also pierce our souls. Because sometimes what we need to be awoken from is sorrow, and sometimes the bite and sting can come from good things that we don’t know that we believe in anymore. Or things that we want desperately to believe in, like redemption and hope. I want stories that remind me that those things are true and that they are out there. Without those reminders, the sea within me remains cold and untouched.
I have gotten away from posting book reviews here, mostly because I never know if my readers want to read the same kinds of books that I do. But I am going to try to start posting reviews for the books that I read that do what Kafka is talking about there, that remind me what it is to feel alive.
I also have stuff to show you that we’ve been working on around our house, including the plans for an addition so that Mike and I can have an actual bathroom rather than the tiny closet we have now!