“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 use 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.” (Franz Kafka – letter to Oskar Pollak 1904)
There are times when we need something relaxing to read, a ‘nice’ novel like… The Art of Fielding, for example, or something by William Boyd – a writer I love.
But Kafka is right… books for me are really more about taking an axe to the frozen sea within us. Each page a new blade, cutting deeper. I’m a fan of much of De Botton’s work, but the critique in this essay is that he is not attempting to change the world, just adjust our attitude, our place within it. Whereas, the writer argues, Zizek is interested in deeper change – which is precisely why he uses so many jokes (including one here about asking a stranger if they had had sex with a dog – which caused me to choke in a lesson I was supervising just now) – to lower our defences, and allow dangerous thoughts in.