Franz Kafka said, “I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? . . . we need 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 within us. That is my belief.”
Many of us have had that kind of sadness in our lives. I certainly have. The frozen sea kind. Sadness that reaches so far down that for a time you quit feeling anything at all. And a book can certainly be the axe that cracks open that frozen sea, helps you feel the grief, helps you move through to the other side.
It is my belief, however, that literature is not only for breaking open our sadness as Kafka would seem to suggest. It is for deepening our experience of all life. It is for feeling . . . the tenderness of the human condition, the ridiculousness of it (just consider the mechanics of sex if you don’t find us ridiculous), the courage of everyday people in their everyday lives, our capacity to love . . . which leads, inevitably, to our capacity to suffer losses. We will each, finally, face the loss of ourselves if by some miracle we live so untouched a life as to endure no other.
Literature—all literature of any worth for any audience whatsoever—rises out of that caldron of human fear and joy and longing and loss. At its best, it prepares us to face—and to feel—all of it. A book can come after our experience to help us know where we’ve been, but it does its best and most powerful work opening us to our world when that world is new. Katherine Paterson has said, and I’m paraphrasing, If you give a child A Bridge to Terabithia after he has experienced death for the first time, you’re too late.
Stories aren’t meant as therapeutic tools to be administered in crisis. They are meant, rather, to crack open our hearts, little by little, to open us to the vulnerability of the human condition, to teach us to live.
Most children today don’t grow up in a village. They grow up in the walled prisons of homes, of schools. Their experience—except for what they get from the media, and it should give us pause to think what’s being piped inside those tight walls by the media—is insular, limited by the nuclear family and the few institutions that surround it. But books, lots of books, the right books and perhaps some of the “wrong” ones, too, can break down those walls and let the world in.
Books can enlarge hearts.
Another quote, this one from Pema Chodron, a Buddhist teacher: “If you can live with the sadness of human life . . . if you can be willing to feel fully and acknowledge continually your own sadness and the sadness of life, but at the same time not be drowned in it, because you also remember the power and vision of the Great Eastern Sun, you experience balance and completeness . . .”
And literature, when it embraces both, experiences balance and completeness, too.
I have come to the point in my own reading life that I resent the writer’s power to bring characters to bad ends if that power is used purely for effect. I know an author can make me cry by killing off the character I love. That’s easy. . . much too easy. But what good are tears unless they are balanced by “the power and vision of the Great Eastern Sun”?
If you are out there writing for young people, don’t be afraid of sadness. But don’t be afraid of the light, either. Sadness alone can shut us down. Tears and laughter in close embrace enlarge our hearts.
Let’s all be in the business of enlarging hearts.