I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it 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 the 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 inside us. That is my belief.
Wow. Them's fighting words. Books need to wound and stab us; they need to disrupt our lives. Think about those books that were "axes for the frozen sea" inside us. THE CHOCOLATE WAR is one I have mentioned in another post recently. It was uncompromising. Because of that, it provoked quite a few less than laudatory reviews. Yet, here it is 40 years after its publication, and we are still talking about it. Think about MONSTER, LOOKING FOR ALASKA, TIGER EYES, BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA, SOPHIE, TEH TENTH GOOD THINK ABOUT BARNEY. This list could go on and on. They are books that "banished" me into "forests far from everyone." I still cannot read the wall by Eve Bunting without shedding tears. Ditto the final scene in BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA. And WHERE THE RED FERN GROWS.
Books that move me emotionally are often the same ones that move me intellectually as well. It often begins with me wondering, "how does the author do that? Make me CARE enough abut a fictional character that I worry about her or him?" Often these books are targets of challenges as well. The books are "too sad" or "too intense" for readers. And yet, these same books are the ones that permit me to sort of test myself. How would I react to the loss of a dear friend? What would I do if faced with these circumstances? Could I survive? Would I stand up against a bully? How far am I willing to go to save someone else?
I do want to take issue with the middle section of this quote here, as I fear it might be misinterpreted. I do not think Kafka is dismissing books that can make us laugh, books with happy endings. I think, though, he might be pointing to the vapid books that were part of my early reading: Pollyanna, Rebecca Sunnybrook Farm, and the like. There was little present in these books save some pretty heavy-handed didacticism. As I prepare to teach the History of Literature for Children this semester, I know how many of the older titles for children fall into this category. They were meant to instruct children in the ways of morality and religion and behavior. They were not meant to "grieve us deeply." Rather, they vexed us. "Is that all there is to this story?" I remember thinking. Dick and Jane and Spot?
I am thankful that today we have books to wound and stab us. I still prefer to test myself in a book before real life requires me to face the harsh realities.