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Kafka: Reading as a Tool for Confrontation


Reading won’t make you happier. In any case, books have their own plans for readers.

Part of the tormented common sense of our time is the idea that reading makes us better people, and that any exercise in reading is, in itself, a desirable good. Assuming the criteria of reading’s advocates (who often confuse reading skills with an education in sensitivity; and who base their confusion on the reading of books, but in the reading of any other materials, too) quickly leads us to the misconception that reading will make us happy.

Franz Kafka knew very well not only that books won’t serve to make us happy, but that their function is reduced to a mere simplicity if we grant to books this function. Although the adjective Kafkaesque has grown to be nearly synonymous with the absurd, the inexplicable, the threatening and the horrible, the Kafka view of books is actually a good example of Kafka’s strategy as a reader. And as an author. Focus your attention where all our certainties will be disappointed, where an attentive eye will find a discreet and unexpected discovery.

In the case of books and their functions, a good example of this way of reading is found in a letter that Kafka sent to his friend, Oskar Pollak, in 1904. In the letter, Kafka sums up beautifully that books are not only useless for making us happy. (Happiness, ultimately, whether it’s attainable or not, depends on something else.) But books are a means to get closer to parts of ourselves that otherwise, we’d know neither how to visit nor to understand:

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 ax for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.

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