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