The Power of Books: They Reveal the World As It Is Not As You Wish It To Be

Good books challenge me, terrify me, force me to question everything, force me to see that I’m not special, that I’m mortal, that life often lacks clarity, certainty, and meaning.

Why read Camus, Kafka, Dostoevsky, Hesse, Becker, Nabokov, Beckett, Orwell, Coetzee, Hemingway and their ilk? Is it just because we silly apes seem to derive pleasure from tasks that are more difficult to complete? No, there is more to it, I believe:

These books reveal the world as it is not as I wish it to be. They do so not purely through the content of their words, but through the very fact that they challenge me. Being challenged puts the brain into a whirlpool of humbling questions. It forces me out of my comfortable self-centered cocoon. I begin to re-evaluate the conventions and assumptions of my upbringing, my social circles, my inner and outer world. That way lies madness, but also enlightenment, so I proceed carefully…

kafka-keyDespite the heaviness of its lows, this process is ultimately life-affirming. After being dragged along the bottom of my skull by a tough book, I always emerge on the other end with a quiet contentment that feels unshakably real.

It seems that happiness is earned through fire.

This post was inspired by this Reddit post and the Franz Kafka quote:

“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.

Off the top of my head, here are ten authors (and books) that chipped away at that frozen sea for me:

  1. Camus: The Stranger, The Plague, The Myth of Sisyphus
  2. Hesse: The Glass Bead Game, Demian, Steppenwolf, Siddhartha
  3. Kafka: The Metamorphosis, A Hunger Artist, The Trial, The Castle
  4. Dostoevksy: The Idiot, Notes from Underground, The Brothers Karamazov
  5. Kerouac: On the Road
  6. Orwell: Animal Farm, 1984
  7. Philip Roth: American Pastoral, Sabbath’s Theater
  8. Salinger: Catcher in the Rye
  9. Hemingway: The Old Man and the Sea, The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms
  10. Nietzsche: Beyond Good and Evil, The Genealogy of Morals

How to Argue Like a Man: Don’t Be a Whiny Bitch

Theodore Roosevelt photograph courtesy of Reddit: 19-year-old Theodore Roosevelt during his freshman year at Harvard, 1877 Side note: If the phrase “like a man” or “don’t be a whiny bitch” offends you, please read this article on Misogyny and Feminism. … Continue reading

5 Lessons Learned from Einstein’s Work and Personal Life

This month I read (and listened to the audiobook of) Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson. Here are some “lessons” I drew from it. Before reading this book, I knew very little of the man and process behind … Continue reading

First Impressions: Cauliflower Ears, Tom Waits, Bukowski, Camus, Military, and Atheism

Aposematism is the use of warning coloration (e.g. RED) by animals to signal that they are not to be messed with. A red frog is telling the world: if you eat me, you will probably die. So, when I meet … Continue reading

Eat 7 Fruits and Vegetables a Day: A Study Shows a Decrease in Cancer and Heart Disease Mortality Rate

I eat a lot of fruits and vegetables: apples, green beans, cauliflower, etc. I’m not some health nut. I just like to eat large portions of simple things. That includes fruits and veggies, but it also includes steak, chicken, oatmeal, … Continue reading

48 Laws of Power and 50 Shades of Grey

I’ve been thinking and reading about the topic of honesty lately. First, I read The Honest Truth About Dishonesty that describes that we are liars by nature and the kind of incentives/forces that are needed to keep us honest. Then, … Continue reading

How of Practice Taoism: 3 Steps to Happiness

“Sometimes, if you stand on the bottom rail of a bridge and lean over to watch the river slipping slowly away beneath you, you will suddenly know everything there is to know.” – Winnie the Pooh After some tough training … Continue reading