This is a pretty well known quotation, but it bears repetition and thinking about (as with so much Kafka, it’s impossible to entirely agree with his point of view, yet once you read it it’s impossible to continue to think in the same way).

Altogether, I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading doesn’t shake us awake like a blow to the skull, why bother reading it in the first place? So that it can make us happy, as you put it? Good God, we’d be just as happy if we had no books at all; books that make us happy we could, in a pinch, also write ourselves. What we need are books that hit us like a most painful misfortune, like the death of someone we loved more than we love ourselves, that make us feel as though we had been banished to the woods, far from any human presence, like suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is what I believe.

The original:

Ich glaube, man sollte überhaupt nur solche Bücher lesen, die einen beißen und stechen. Wenn das Buch, das wir lesen, uns nicht mit einem Faustschlag auf den Schädel weckt, wozu lesen wir dann das Buch? Damit es uns glücklich macht, wie Du schreibst? Mein Gott, glücklich wären wir eben auch, wenn wir keine Bücher hätten, und solche Bücher, die uns glücklich machen, könnten wir zur Not selber schreiben. Wir brauchen aber die Bücher, die auf uns wirken wie ein Unglück, das uns sehr schmerzt, wie der Tod eines, den wir lieber hatten als uns, wie wenn wir in Wälder verstoßen würden, von allen Menschen weg, wie ein Selbstmord, ein Buch muß die Axt sein für das gefrorene Meer in uns. Das glaube ich.

(From a letter to Oskar Pollak dated January 27, 1904.) “Das glaube ich” is far superior in force to “That is what I believe,” but what else can you do with it? “This I believe”? “I believe that”? No, I don’t think you can keep the axe-like concision. Too bad. (Via Avva, who is trying to turn up a Russian version.)


  1. “This I believe” is a more aesthetic rendition. It has a syllabic match with the original German. “I believe that” is horrible”. Sure, das is more like that, but in the overall sense I think they can serve the same purpose.
    And, due to my idiolect, “zur Not” and “in a pinch” have never correlated, but that is an excellent choice. I guess I just don’t use pinch in that sense enough.
    Also, Kafka (okay, I know, it’s Kafka, so certainly a general attitude is present) could have sacrificed the force of that passage for a mealy-mouthed version stating that a book ought to possess one’s inner emotional life and move it. Of course, that is implied through his concept that the “only books one should read” are those that somehow make us feel we are separated from that which we love “more than ourselves” because some part of the book needs to make one feel that love. And to use the most hackneyed, most ready for glue cliché I can think of, the emotional rollercoaster of such a book can end with one staggering away in awe and with a stomach in one’s head, but does not require the carnival to collapse or the incredibly tragic occurring to those characters one rides with. Anyway, such a view lends itself to mawkish and maudlin fiction.
    And, as I wrote that, another thought came into my head, “Franz, books aren’t binary like that!”
    And that is probably all I should have written.

  2. At Brad DeLong someone quotes an Amazon review of “Dhalberg”, the gist of which is that reading the book changed him so entirely that his life was ruined, and that he wasn’t quite sure whether it was worth it or not.

  3. Whereas my reading of Dhalgren (I’m assuming that’s what you mean) changed the book so utterly that it was ruined. (It fell into the toilet, and I took it as a sign from ghod that I needen’t bother finishing it.)

  4. No, I mean the very obscure “Dhalberg”, not the Oprah Winfrey book club best-seller “Dhalgren”. I guess I should have made that clear.

  5. OK. There’s no book titled “Dhalberg”, nor is there a book titled “Dahlberg” on Amazon. The book that Zizka may be referring to is “Edward Dahlberg,…”; however, the only reviewer is a descendant of Mr. Dahlberg who seems to have a pretty sunny disposition.

  6. I regret to say that the so-called “zizka” has a notoriously peculiar sense of humor, which I suspect he is employing to paper over his sense of mortification at being caught out in a slip of the keyboard. Either that, or Oprah has far more catholic tastes than I have ever realized.

  7. If I had dropped an Oprah selection into the toilet, I don’t think I’d be bragging about it. That lady has a lot of power, you know.

  8. Herr Kafka, Mr Misery-guts, needs to take a chill pill. Happiness is not such an unworthy goal! I daresay, some of us rather like it, and don’t mind so much if books aid our quest for it. Ja sicher, das glaube ich.

  9. t fell into the toilet, and I took it as a sign from ghod that I needen’t bother finishing it.

    Whereby you probably missed an exquisite epithet: “That naugahyde rimmer of rusty Chevrolet nineteen-fifty-two exhaust pipes!”

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