Kafka’s belief that a book should affect us like a disaster or a blow to the head, that a book should take an ax to the frozen sea inside us, contrasts not only with the nineteenth century world of “great” or “heroic” literature as a vast ocean of social consciousness on which writers sail the craft of their art towards historical, social, psychological and emotional understanding of “the times”, but also with the more modern idea, expressed vividly by Virginia Woolf, and more recently by Wendy Lesser, that a dynamic reading experience is a journey of “discovery” during which we, the readers, may have to “yield our ground or stick to our guns”. One is reminded of what the Japanese writer and martial artist Yuko Mishima said—“Everyday life is worse than war.”   Kafka’s belief (and Mishima’s), is that the reading life ought to somehow counteract everyday life, negating reading as a virtuous exercise designed to make us happy, satisfied, “more understanding”, or, God forbid, well adjusted. Kafka’s friend, no doubt pursuing a train of thought as commonplace as any other, wondered in a letter why reading shouldn’t make us happy. Perhaps he was thinking of the many people who read for pleasure, devouring the mass detritus of writing, which in our day has become a vast garbage heap of romance novels, techno-thrillers, mysteries and crime novels, varieties and sub-species of “chick lit”, and a grab-bag of business, self-help, and psychobabble books that fill used book stores ceiling to floor, though that in Kafka’s day probably meant gothic horror, dime novels, and pulp. Kill off the pursuit of happiness, Kafka replied to his friend, and introduce yourself to lost love, grief and suicide, not to mention the metaphorical dark forest.

There’s nothing wrong with happiness. Evolutionary psychologists, sociologists, and medical doctors all tell us that we’re better off happy than sad, active than depressed, positive rather than negative; they’ve even produced a science to describe the profound benefits of a vigorous social life, happy relationships, and functional families, and a pharmacology to go with it. There is a new business of happiness (wrapped around cognitive behavioral therapy), with a smiley-face in every hypothesis. I remember well participating in one of those “get to know everybody” sessions at an inner-city school where I was mentoring underprivileged kids, teaching them chess, and helping them with home work and bullying problems. The teachers were well-meaning, reasonably intelligent, mostly hard working and severely stressed. Almost all were female, overweight and busy. Posing a series of questions in a multiple-choice format, the moderators aimed to make express the underlying values uniting the team, so that our hidden selves melded and merged. It came as no surprise to me that almost everybody taking part indicated that their ultimate value was “family”, and that what made them happy was their children and their church. The “search for truth” came in fourth or fifth, well down the list of values. Why kill off happiness if all it gets you is another unpleasant truth?

The reading life, as opposed to a “life enjoying reading”, stands against the pursuit of happiness. Nothing in the reading life negates love, family, or more generally “hope” of fulfillment; yet, the reading life is a portal to something else, even though childhood reading is often a true pleasure, with many happy returns. As a child, I experienced the great joys of youthful reading, propped in a sunny drugstore window with Batman comics; the Hardy Boys in my bedroom at home, surrounded by model airplanes and toys; and my Little Golden Books read on a wave of windy immortality where in my memory it is always May and the iris are always in bloom. Much later, during my second year of college I came to Hemingway, as every person my age did, and some still do. Suddenly, granted time to be apart from everyday life (alone in my basement apartment, dark snow on the ground outside, no class until eleven the next morning…), I opened Hemingway’s first book, “In Our Time”, where lost love, suicide and grief, war weariness, alienation, and death explode from the page like a bomb.

Like all good titles, “In Our Time” has heft. It might mean 1925 bearing its ghosts of twenty million dead in the World War, partitioned off from the decade by the pursuit of material gain and heavy drinking; or, it might mean our time on earth, which as individuals is short. But it might also mean mankind’s history—what it’s all come down to.

One could never forget the stories, which purify the pages with plainspoken poetry. Nick’s father is in the Indian Camp, overseeing a difficult birth. “He pulled back the blanket from the Indian’s head. His hand came away wet. He mounted the edge of the lower bunk with the lamp in one hand and looked in. The Indian lay with his face toward the wall. His throat had been cut from ear to ear. The blood flowed down into a pool where his body sagged the bunk. His head rested on his left arm. The open razor lay, edge up, in the blankets.” The doctor explains to his son that men sometimes kill themselves when they can’t stand things. Nick wonders out loud if dying is hard, and his father tells him it’s pretty easy. Surely, we know that the doctor isn’t telling his son the truth. In “The End of Something”, Nick tells Marjorie that it isn’t fun anymore. “I feel as though everything was gone to hell inside of me. I don’t know, Marge. I don’t know what to say.” And in the justly famous, “Big Two-Hearted River”, Nick hesitates to fish the swamp, where the branches grow low and you’d almost have to be level with the ground to move at all. You could not crash through the branches. The swamp–dark, close and mysterious, would have to wait. “There were plenty of days coming when he could fish the swamp.”

I came of age during the Vietnam War. American cities were burning after riots in the streets. A young man was killed by a police bullet in front my house in Lawrence, Kansas. Protesters barricaded campus and one night the student union burned to the ground, just a hundred yards from my back porch. Slowly but surely I entered the reading life. It did not feel heroic at the time. It felt neither romantic nor historical. On those long winter nights living on my own for the first time, Hemingway’s book seemed more a mirror in which I observed the same galaxy I’d first glimpsed as a child. In the mirror were many painful, beautiful, and even thrilling things. The reading life was one of them, as was lost love and grief.