Monday, December 3, 2007

An Axe for the Frozen Sea

Last night I finished a collection of Franz Kafka's shorter works (I highly reccomend "The Metamorphosis;" it's a story for any young person who's ever woken up and realized that they might not be able to face the challenges ahead of them), and while his more complex work eludes me, I find other pieces of his writing chillingly perceptive. Most of his stories and aphorisms are about the havoc of bureaucracy or man's inferiority, while his personal writing reveals his understanding that he can only live fully through his writing. I've decided to quote a portion of Kafka's letter to Oskar Pollak dated January 27th, 1904, which struck a particular chord:

...I read Hebbel's diaries (some 1800 pages) all at once, whereas previously I had always just bitten out small pieces that struck me as insipid....I simply could not take a pen in hand during these days. Because when you're surveying a life like that, which towers higher and higher without a gap, so high you can scarcely reach it with your field glasses, your conscience cannot settle down. But it's good when your conscience receives big wounds, because that makes it more sensitive to every twinge. 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.

Ironically, I did not feel this way about a few of of Kafka's stories, but kept reading anyway. I won't attempt to mimic Kafka's description, but I agree that certain books do stir us like a disaster, and to feel that twinge within should be the goal of everyone who ever picks up a book and begins to read.

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