In Prague, Kafka informs a friend that books ought to wound the soul—that a book should cause us grief equal to the death of someone we love more than we love ourselves.  In Key West, Hemingway is writing the opening of his masterpiece, “A Farewell to Arms”.   Consider how it begins:

In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.

     The plain was rich with crops; there were many orchards of fruit trees and beyond the plain the mountains were brown and bare. There was fighting in the mountains and at night we could see flashes from the artillery. In the dark it was like summer lightning, but the nights were cool and there was not the feeling of a storm coming. 

Hemingway concludes his short, first chapter:

At the start of the winter came the permanent rain and with the rain came the cholera. But it was checked and in the end only seven thousand died of it in the army.

There is in this a cool, objective irony that is the equal to acceptance. We know the story. Lieutenant Henry deserts the army and falls in love with Catherine, his nurse, who is an idealized “stand-in” for Hemingway’s real-life nurse in Italy, as he convalesced from a leg wound that was more or less serious according to Hemingway’s mood in the telling of it. But the writer’s other wounds are real, as is his distaste for glory, honor and sacrifice, hollow words that mask the deaths of “only” seven thousand that winter from cholera. Much later in the book, Catherine, in childbirth, suffers one hemorrhage after another, about which the doctors can do nothing. It doesn’t take her long to die. Lieutenant Henry thinks for a while that it would be good for him to be alone with her and say goodbye. “But after I got them out and shut the door and turned off the light it wasn’t any good. It was like saying goodbye to a statue. After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.”

Hemingway claimed to write on the iceberg principle. For the exposed white cap, there were seven-eighths more underwater. In the reading life we are exposed to such a book on very rare occasions, almost by accident. One goes up many blind alleys, always on the “look out” for something, bruising oneself against the battlements until, finally, along comes “A Farwell to Arms”, that is yours to do with as you will. The book is neither a faithful comrade in waiting, nor a treasure to savor. Though you may not be able to describe, categorize or define it, you know you’re in the reading life when books have power and you’re open to surrender.

“Do you have a book to read?” a friend asks. “What are you reading now?” Another question, signaling an impatience to get going, signaling being “in-between” books. One reckons with a restlessness that comes from a search for “something to read”; the library, the bookstore, the shelves, all threaten starvation amid plenty. The reading life must sublimate some deep, human impulse that runs counter to common sense. Or, maybe the reading life is a simple cultural form of individualistic capitalism. But, who would prowl through life for something to read? Who in his right mind would re-read “A Farewell to Arms” twenty or thirty times in his life? Who but a fool memorizes whole passages from favorite books and can recite them at will? Who collects scattered poems and refers back to them for—inspiration, succor, or reassurance? What idiot says goodbye to his family and friends and disappears into a book?

We are on the track of a discipline here, one that does not wind up in withdrawal from the world, or in some form of ascetic masochism; but, rather, one that elbows perilously close to an art form itself, with all its formalities, traditions, materials and rules, but which, like all art forms practiced with mindfulness, leads beyond all these into unknown country.