• A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us ...

    "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." -- Kafka

    Some books must be an axe, but sadly, many are not. I would wager in fact, that the majority of books are actually more ice for the frozen sea inside the reader instead.

    As someone fascinated by Charles Dickens, and was so long before the current resurgence that we're currently in due to his 200th birthday, books like Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, David Copperfield and Hard Times were like the axes against my frozen soul. For the last decade, I have read Oliver Twist every winter, taking time to read some of the essays, prefaces and criticism by Dickens and others during the process. There was a lot of meat and cold steel in those pages that made me come to terms with my own struggles of who I am as a person, and what I was to be.

    However, in my opinion, a lot of readers would rather not look inside and break apart that construct of the complex fantasy that protects them. More fantasy is often the medicine they self-prescribe. I'm not speaking of the kind of fantasy written by the likes of H.G. Wells, R.A. Salvatore, Connie Willis and the like. No. I meant readers will purposefully steer themselves away from specific material that they know will bother them. Effect them. Penetrate deep down. Break upon the frozen sea inside of them, like an axe. They know this almost at a genetic level. Hence the difficulty of Literary Fiction. It's a set-up to knock down bowling pins and the reader knows it.

    On the obverse side of the same coin, not to be flip, but I also spent years trying to freeze whatever it was within me, and I purposely tossed huge bricks inward to help the process. When I was 12, I discovered an author by the name of Carlos Castaneda. I started reading him casually, semi-interested in his journeyman's travels into Sonora, Mexico as an Anthropologist. By the time I was 15, I had read most of the Castaneda books three or four times, back to back. Some say the first three are the most important. Some say the first four, while others say the first seven are gospel. It's a personal choice, really. Journey to Ixtlan, though, is likely most critical.

    What Carlos Castaneda did though, at least with my ever-growing perception, was the idea of letting go of self-image and stepping away from the development of self-image in a committed fashion, as well as stepping away from what we think the definition of the world and this life actually is. His world-view and stand-point was similar to that of some ancient Hopi Natives, or the Yaqui Natives that he wrote about, who gazed into crystals seemingly to discover that this world was merely a veil, disguising a much larger, expansive one. 

    The young mind typically eats that stuff up. No surprise there. While everyone else was sprinting to the grocery store for Stephen King, I was on my way to the library, or some god forsaken place that sold “new-age” books. Heady stuff for a kid -- but I was never a kid. Not really. At least, I didn't feel that way, if I was. I did my best to break this free, like loose chunks of ice, in my novel Greyhound, but while most readers loved and adored it, some had a hard time accepting that children are that complex.

    Note: The Yaqui Natives did this 'seeing' without the use of crystals, just for the record, and it was a practiced ability with a great significance to them, according to Castaneda. I had to include this before someone cried foul.

    There's an interesting scene at the beginning of the film Blade Runner, where the character Holden is interviewing a fugitive Replicant named Leon, and when asked about the psychological test in process, Holden issues forth this immortal line:

    It's a test designed to provoke an emotional response.”

    To me, that's what I believe Kafka was alluding to. As much as he was trying to break worthwhile ground with his readers, he knew that a lot of people would ultimately reject his message and the message of other equally important classics. Hence, the reason why they're likely referred to as 'the classics'.

    When you read a book, you may not like it. The real point is to what degree? Did you hate it, despise it, loathe it? If so, then you have a winner on your hands, because it made you think and feel. Not all books are supposed to have happy endings or feel-good story-lines or even deliver perfect closure. 


    Because that doesn't happen in real life. Real life is dark and messy and full of heartbreak and loss. Dealing with those issues is the real story. Learning how to cope and thrive in any otherwise uncompromising environment, is likely to be the most valuable lessons you can glean from the pages of any good book, in any genre. Life is a test, designed to provoke an emotional response, as should our reading.

    I'm often perplexed when I read negative reviews and I read things like:

    God, I hated all those characters in that book. They made me feel icky and sad. 1 Star!”

    Those things honestly perplex me, as it's clear that some people are smart enough to read, but still need assistance in thinking critically and getting off the surface of their own visible earth. It made the person feel and feel strongly, and yet the book failed? No, sorry. Look again. Inward this time.

    But here's the whopper to the whole thing … as I go through my everyday life, and do my repetitive tasks and drink my morning coffee in a daze, I know that it's unlikely that I will probably come face to face that day with someone like Bill Sykes, Fagin, young David Copperfield or Miss Havisham.

    Estella? Sure, all day long. Beauty is everywhere.

    But people that make you feel intensely? The entire spectrum of emotion? They're like books – we do our best to avoid them. Most of us 'loathe confrontation' or 'don't waste time with low-class people' or 'don't care to waste time with people like that when I can go make $25 an hour at work.' The reasons are endless, but the truth is as obvious and plain as the money in our pocket.

    Next time you're buying books, please think of me. Are you going to grab your easy-to-read, bare-chested Romance, or would you be willing to pick up something a tad more challenging – like an axe – and hack inward?

    You might be surprised at what you discover. People are like huge blocks of marble, and it's only when you hack away at it, do you discover the real them, the real art, the real beauty on the inside – not the shallow glossy surface that we're first presented with.


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