One of my favorite quotations is from Franz Kafka:
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? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But 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.
I read a lot of classic literature, lyric poetry, and even a few bestsellers, but my real passion is for transgressive fiction. This is the prime reason I keep the Experimental Fiction group going in a small corner of this weblog. I tell everyone that I crave books with free-flowing bodily fluids and an embarrassing amount of gratuitous sex. But what do you do when the book you are reading has all the excitement and intrigue of a Hallmark Christmas Special?
Did you ever read a novel that had all the depth of a Necco wafer and all the subtlety of Cream of Wheat? Well I invite you to read Kent Haruf’s scintillating novel, Where You Once Belonged.
Let’s see: High School sports hero dumps loyal girlfriend after graduation and marries hotty from another state after a weekend tryst but later runs off with the profits from the grain elevator he manages only to return years later after the statute of limitations has expired on his crime and forces his wife and kids to come with him as he rides into the sunset leaving more than one person in the little Colorado town sad and confused. The only irony in this story is the title: what does it mean and who does it refer to?
I suspect this is exactly the type of book that Kafka would have rejected. Curiously, however, I have experienced many readers that prefer this simple tale and praise it for being such a close representation of real life (or as Sarah Palin often calls it: the real America). Which reminds me of another quotation:
Do not read, as children do, to amuse yourself, or like the ambitious, for the purpose of instruction. No, read in order to live.— Gustave Flaubert
Just for future reference when I’m looking for books to avoid, here is the Wikipedia bibliography for Kent Haruf:
The Tie That Binds (1984)
Where You Once Belonged (1990)
West of Last Chance, with photographer Peter Brown (2008)
Our Souls at Night (to be published in 2015)