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 ax for the frozen sea within us. That is what I believe.
—Franz Kafka, from a letter to Oskar Pollak dated January 27, 1904.
Walter Brueggemann loosely cited this passage from Kafka in our interview being released this week and so, while fact-checking the script, we thought we’d verify for attribution. And, we wanted to read what he originally wrote. Following is the German version from which the English was translated:
"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."
Photo by Celeste RC/Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0
Rosanne Cash Is “In the Room” with Krista Tippett (Live Video!)
November 17th, 2011 ~ 4:30pm CT/5:30pm ET
She’s lived a life, as she describes it, “circumscribed by music” and has given voice to her experiences through the lyrics and rhythms of her compositions — and of her musical ancestors. In a one-one-one, free-flowing conversation for 90 minutes, we’ll talk to her about the way she thinks about music and literature, life and spirituality.
Pssst! For you bloggers and website editors out there, we’re offering you the ability to embed this video on your site. We’ve got promotional image tiles and code that makes it easy to do. Oh, and you can embed the chat module too! Check out the details at the On Being live video events page.
Novelist Asks Ira Glass If He’d Hide His Family in the Attic
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
"If there’s another Holocaust, can I hide in your attic?"
Novelist Shalom Auslander puts this question to the host of This American Life and a couple of other TAL alumni — Sarah Vowell and John Hodgman — as part of his promotional effort for his new book, Hope: A Tragedy. Playing on the theme of the "collective Holocaust guilt" of Jews that runs throughout his novel, he crafts some pretty brilliant (and entertaining) video trailers touching on some rather delicate religious ground.
Had I gone looking for some particular place rather than any place, I’d have never found this spring under the sycamores. Since leaving home, I felt for the first time at rest. Sitting full in the moment, I practiced on the god-awful difficulty of just paying attention. It’s a contention of my father’s—believing as he does that anyone who misses the journey misses about all he’s going to get—that people become what they pay attention to. Our observations and curiosity, they make and remake us.
—William Least Heat-Moon
Blue Highways has to be one of the most profound literary travelogues I’ve ever read. It’s almost 20 years old now, but his portraits of America — its people and its geographies — remain unequaled and in the process he gives of himself. For all you Kerouac fans, you might have a new hero for an author, or at least one who you can relate to in a whole new way.
~Trent Gilliss, senior editor
With William James I met a finite god, which was a pleasure.
—David Hartman, Orthodox rabbi and philosopher who founded the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.
We’re in the final throes of producing this stirring interview for release on September 20th. Hold on to your hats; it’s a dandy!
~Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Are You Familiar with Israeli Literature?
by Christin Davis, USC “Reporting on Israel” Journalism Student
“It’s interesting because we all know each other so well,” says Orna Yaron, who along with her husband Meir, helped start the club and are the only remaining members of the 40 attendees of the first book club meeting in 1989. “We know each other’s political inclinations, personal and family situations. We analyze the literature, but everybody comes from his own experience. It’s like group therapy sometimes.”
The group is moderated by a professional, Deborah Steinhart, also an Israeli, who has a doctorate in comparative literature from UC Berkeley. Steinhart went through a few of the authors the club has studied, including Aharon Appelfeld, a prolific writer on the Holocaust; S. Y. Agnon, a Nobel laureate writer; Amos Oz, a journalist and professor of literature at Ben-Gurion University; A. B. Yehoshua, a novelist and playwright; and Amichai Shalev, editor for literature and art on Ynet.
Anyone out there read in Hebrew? Are you familiar with these authors or a fan of their work? What is the major premise of modern Israeli literature? What other Israeli authors should people looking for Hebrew literature be aware of?
I tend to think that fictional characters are in some ways more real than biological human beings. Think of Victorian England. How many people from that era can you remember?. I would say that Sherlock Holmes is more real than the anonymous people who came and went and lived and died in east London. To be a fictional character like that is not such a bad fate.
—Mary Doria Russell, in our "The Novelist as God"
Last week, we lost fiction writer J.D. Salinger and historian Howard Zinn. In the days after their deaths, I noticed Salinger quotes like this one from Catcher in the Rye peppering friends’ Facebook feeds:
"I don’t care if it’s a sad good-bye or a bad good-bye, but when I leave a place I like to know I’m leaving it. If you don’t, you feel even worse."
I haven’t read The Catcher in the Rye since high school, but that voice of Holden Caulfield’s is so recognizable and distinct — like someone I know really well but haven’t talked to in awhile. People have been posting RIP Howard Zinn tributes, but many don’t feature memorable quotes, which reminded me of Mary Doria Russell’s commentary about the enduring imprint of fictional characters.
What about you? Are there characters from beloved books whose imprint has stuck with you over time? Do you have quotes from these fictional friends to share?
Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer
Kate Moos, managing producer
Much will be said and written. But for now, all I can think about is Franny and Zooey, the long theological passage in which
Franny Zooey tells his sister she doesn’t have to recite the Jesus prayer to experience God. Janet Malcolm’s 2001 piece in The New York Review of Books says much about Salinger, Franny and Zooey, and its reception by critics who once doted on him.
(photo: “zooey.” by Victoria/Flickr)