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Franz Kafka on Reading: An Axe That Breaks the Frozen Sea Inside Us

Inspire, Sublimate

Franz Kafka wrote that books should affect us as if they were a natural disaster and not, as most people say, by making us happy.

Susan Sontag used to say that writing is an instrument that allows us to cry “for those that are not us and are not our own”, and that ultimately, what lies in reading is freedom. The freedom she speaks of could be compared to what Franz Kafka described as the essence of reading: “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us”.

We should read for more than simply mere entertainment, which undeniably is one of its pleasurable components and one that traces fortunate paths toward unknown places; however, we should consider reading because the world is more than the things that happen in the world. There is too much crystallization within us –products of everyday life and defense mechanisms—which can only be broken by the axe of intimate and profound reading.

Kafka, who, as Juan Villaloro points out, managed to make the world’s offices poetic, suggests we practice reading as an act that disarms us. His work demands, beforehand, the reader’s courage, which is not something that is easy to come by. But, if reading is in fact a way for us to experience all the things that we cannot experience in real life, then both in our senses and our emotions, we must be brave enough to receive that “blow to the head”, which will awaken us from our frozen lethargy, and could one day save us from something we do not even know is oppressive. Reading, hence, would be freedom.

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.

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