On reading books that change you

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? …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. -Franz Kafka

Kafka is a bit extreme here (hyperbole suits him, of course), but I share his desire for books and for any art that pitches me out of my complacency, that disrupts my comfort of safe ideas and undisturbed feelings.

There’s a numbness to most of our daily existence. Well worn paths are trodden mindlessly. Wake up and go through the motions. Cling thoughtlessly to our tight little circle of opinions and beliefs.

There are landmark moments in my life, though, where an artist has shaken me and provoked a new way of seeing. It’s a surprisingly refreshing kind of pain.

I remember being twenty-something and crashing while riding a bicycle, landing hard on a gravel road and scraping my leg in the process. And it was euphoric. The pain startled me into a sudden awareness that I was indeed alive.

I need that kind of euphoric intellectual and emotional blow regularly. I should embrace the pursuit of ideas that stretch my mind and challenge me to reconsider comfortable assumptions. A truly great book can send me on a journey of discovery that changes everything.

I don’t mind some occasional mindless entertainment, but life is too short to not seek out regular doses of mental and emotional nourishment – provocative, mind altering, life altering works of art.