On reading Kafka

Franz Kafka is a tough read. Of course that’s his intention. Consider this famous quotation from Kafka’s letter to Oskar Pollak in 1904:

I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are 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 would 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.

While I would not choose all my reading based on this criteria, I do think we occasionally need to read those books that “wake us up with a blow on the head.” The poet W. H. Auden provides wise guidance on when one should read Kafka:

I am inclined to believe that one should only read Kafka when one is in a eupeptic state of physical and mental health and, in consequence, tempted to dismiss any scrupulous heart-searching as a morbid fuss. When one is in low spirits, one should probably keep away from him, for, unless introspection is accompanied, as it always was in Kafka, by an equal passion for the good life, it all too easily degenerates into spineless narcissistic fascination with one’s own sin and weakness.
 

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