Skip to main content

Should a Book Stab You, Or Make You Happy?

By 25/09/2012blog, books

“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.”

— Franz Kafka

Franz Kafka

Franz Kafka and Books that Stab you

I read this quote today on Goodreads, and began discussing it with a few friends on Facebook. Opinions veered on one side or the other.

Personally, I think there will always be those who read to be provoked into thought, and those who read to escape. Both are equally valid reasons for reading, in my opinion, and I alternate between the two.

When it comes to my own writing, however, I aspire to Kafka’s recommended genre. I would die happy if  I could write 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.”

What sort of book would You rather read? Why? And if you’re a writer, what sort of book would you rather write?

Damyanti Biswas

Damyanti Biswas is the author of You Beneath Your Skin and numerous short stories that have been published in magazines and anthologies in the US, the UK, and Asia. She has been shortlisted for Best Small Fictions and Bath Novel Awards and is co-editor of the Forge Literary Magazine. Her literary crime thriller series, the Blue Mumbai, is represented by Lucienne Diver from The Knight Agency. Both The Blue Bar and The Blue Monsoon were published in 2023.

I appreciate comments, and I always visit back. If you're having trouble commenting, let me know via the contact form, or tweet me up @damyantig !

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


  • This debate of awe inspiring and life changing books versus feel happy books or a more precise time pass books will endure till the last man on earth is alive. The debate , to get drawn into, must one know what he wants to do with his life of 613200 hours …then the candle begins to flicker at age 70. If I be the change agent, then oh yes! I need those stabbing books not many though….even one gem of a classic can stab that much…that all other books would look like repetitive of sort to some extent.Cause moral of all the great books or in the language of debate here, the stabbing books, are mostly originate from the fountain of truthfulness, compassion, equality and justice, preservation of all lives…While though the debate make it appear there is a conflict between Happy Book and Stabbing books …there isn’t always…even plain books with feel good factors has an under current of that stabbing phenomena that make many a happy book turn out to be stabbing books…This debate reminds of the debate in India in 60s-70s between Art film and entertainment films…ON current day, the distinction has got blurred here too.

  • Kunal Sen says:

    When I am feeling pensive, I find myself reading the only comfort-prose I know- and these tend to be mysteries: Perry Mason, Feluda, Poirot; or some days, P.G.W., Ruskin Bond, Archie’s comics and travelogues (non-fiction)- either way, these books feel familiar, comforting and do not threaten and on some days, that is just what is needed: kindness.

    When I am not feeling anything or am confronting a writer’s block (I rarely experience elation)- I tend to pick books that rattle and dazzle in equal measure with the sheer, brutal magnificence of their prose- let’s say the last two pages of Capote’s ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ or Lahiri’s ‘Interpreter of Maladies’ or the opening two pages of Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’ – these nurture, these give me head-rushes and throat-lumps and adrenaline and those little moments when I shake my head and smile and go, ‘Bloody hell, that’s brilliant!’ and these pages, these books- they are staggering, in all their glory and bleakness, fury and madness, and I wouldn’t trade this masochistic, almost physical experience, for anything else in the world.

  • Both, both, both! 😀 I think that a book should challenge you and make you think, consider the ‘other side’ that you’ve not yet taken into account, but the same book should also please you, be it through exploration of that ‘other side’ or just a simply satisfying ending.

    • Damyanti says:

      Who doesn’t like the best of both worlds? Such books are rare though — I thought “The Room” was one of them.

  • I think what I’d rather read depends on my mood. It’s wonderful that there are books out there that make us examine life more closely, that make us really, really think. At the same time, there’s something to be said for books that make us happy. Books we can close with a satisfied smile. Books that help us see the beauty in the world, that make us appreciate life, that make us more willing to be open to love. Books that make us laugh. And, yes, books that we can read ourselves to sleep with at night, so it’s like falling asleep next to someone we love.

    It’s wonderful, isn’t it, that there are so many different types of books to suit everybody’s every mood?

  • gc1963 says:

    Thought provoking. Looking back I see myself reading those books which subscribed to ‘my world’. It is difficult to define ‘my world’ now. But I also like to read those books which leave a trail behind… a kind of wisp in the air… a fragrance which I can sniff and feel around me… a sort of nostalgia… a reminder of lost memories…

    However, more recently I have ‘found’, yes. ‘found’ Sylvia Plath. The harshness of her style is indeed stabbing, kind of waking you up with a sudden start. I wouldn’t like to be crazed by a book but mindlessness is also not my genre.

    Great blog!

    • Damyanti says:

      Thrilled to meet another Sylvia Plath fan. I’ve loved her for the past 20 years, and her voice is never silent in my head.

  • marymtf says:

    I loved Kafka and Satre, Camus and Bergman, but now I’m older than Kafka was when he died. If I want to learn about human nature I willl read the newspaper, if I want to be entertained and comforted,I read novels. I wonder what Kafka would have written had he lived to be, let’s say sixty or seventy.

    • Damyanti says:

      That’s an interesting take on existentialism– which is what Kafka, Sartre, Camus etc were involved with. Existentialism is a worldview, and as worldviews go, it’s pretty cynical. While I completely support going to books for entertainment, I find these authors have a heightened appeal for me today, as I march into middle age.

      • marymtf says:

        I’m pretty cynical,and as you march out of middle age you probably will be too.

        • Tim Pieraccini says:

          I’m also older than Kafka was when he died. I don’t know if 50 counts as marching out of middle age, but for some reason my optimism is generally intact. Age doesn’t always bring bitterness. The problem with entertainment – to refer to bronxboy’s beautifully concise comment – is that it leaves you unchanged, and the problem with cynicism is that it tends to leave the world unchanged. I hope to progress always towards greater understanding – even (especially!) of behaviour that prompts me towards cynicism – in the hope that it will enable me to approach others with more compassion and empathy. Entertainment rarely helps me to do that. Nor, come to that, do newspapers, which is why I don’t read them as often as I probably should. So, personally, I seek out books and films that I hope will remind me that I’m alive – and that others are, and that they feel fear, and pain and loss – by stabbing me.

          • marymtf says:

            Hi Tim,
            Really, I didn’t mean to be rude, it’s just my opinion. That’s the trouble with how words can sound different in the old noggin than they do when written down.
            Some once told me that we shed our skin every seven years. I don’t know if that’s true or not but I think that in the same way we become different people and tend to see things differently as we go through the different ages and stages.
            I don’t necessarily mean that it has to make us all cynical about life, love and the universe. But those of us who are cynical, are not necessarily bitter, just observant. And being cynical doesn’t mean that I have no compassion or empathy, rather the reverse. I don’t want to change the world. Well, I do, actually, but don’t think anything I can do will make a difference. I can only be the best person I can be and leave it to those around me to be influenced by it or not. As for books, well, how great is it that not all of us feel obliged to read (or write) the same thing for the same reason.

            • Damyanti says:

              Just to add my two cents. Cynicism has a bad rep, but I feel undeservedly so. I would define it as knowing the odds and being compassionate, courageous, and yes, even hopeful, despite that knowledge.

              • marymtf says:

                I’ll see your two cents’ worth and raise you four. 🙂

                • I didn’t think you were being rude at all. And I agree diversity of opinion and approach is much to be desired. But I think you’re both working with a different definition of cynicism to the one I grew up with!

  • bronxboy55 says:

    This is an easy one, D. The best books are the ones that find me, on the last page, a different person than I was on the first. That’s the kind of book I want to write.

  • prathibalrao says:

    Hi Damayanthi,

    I am Prathiba from “The indian food court”. Thanx for dropping by my blog and commenting.

  • Oooooo, that’s a deep question for 8am (I’m still in my PJ’s lol) *thinks*

    Like you, I read for both reasons, although I don’t choose either way consciously. I pick up the book, read the blurb, and then I’ll choose to read it (or not) depending on my mood.

    As for what I write? Hmmmm, tricky….I’d like to think I write stuff that is thought provoking, that really affected people emotionally….but, I’m not sure I’m talented enough to write THE book, that will affect everyone in the same way.

    Interesting post Damyanti, I’ll be thinking about this one all day now 🙂


    • Damyanti says:

      In all fairness, Vikki, I wrote this at 9 pm my time :).

      I’m like you, I browse through books and let them pick me. I read light stuff before bed, fantasy etc; literary in the morning, horrors strictly if the sun is bright and shiny outside. Er..I just realized this is what I do! I might have to do another post to explore this…sigh.

      As to writing, my theory is if I aim for the stars, I’ll at least scale a mole-hill, right? The idea is to reach higher each day, with (or despite!) our different abilities, talents, and resources.

      And Vikki, no book affects Everyone the same way. A few minutes on Goodreads would convince you of that. I’m sure you’ll write the book you have in you, and I’m sure no one else could write it — that is both the blessing and curse of writers.

      • He he he….I always read Blogs in the early morning, perhaps I should change that 😉

        Yes, you’re right, the books I read definitely pick me, rather than the other way round 😉

        Love your theory of aiming for the stars!

        That’s very true! I’ve hated some absolute classics that I hear people raving on about as being fantastic lol.


  • I would – and have read – books that make me wonder what the surviving characters are doing for, I mean Christmas.

  • Joanna Macy wrote: ‘The heart that breaks open can contain the whole universe.’ I am definitely with Kafka – we do need entertainment/relaxation from time to time, but I would rather be made to cry than laugh, because it awakens compassion and may make me kinder, to myself as well as others.

  • Isn’t there enough grief in the daily world news, that is, in reality, without adding to it? And yet there is a place for deep thought-provoking literature. I was reading my latest novel — chapter by chapter — to a disabled friend and she was enthralled BUT begged me to have a happy ending or she would be very upset. (Bless her she has enough problems without adding fictional ones!)

    • Damyanti says:

      Someone said almost exactly the same thing on my FB. I read Anne Enright’s The Gathering at a low ebb in my life, and it pushed me lower. Not that I hated it for that, just that I’m now more careful in my book choices to go with my moods.

  • I’ve read both, although I tend to lean more toward escape. As for writing, I know I’ll never create something that deep and moving, so I just aim for fun escapism.

    • Damyanti says:

      Alex, no one creates something in order to make it deep or moving–they create what comes to them. Fun escapism is as important as profound realization.

  • umashankar says:

    Nothing shakes us out of our stupor like tragedies. Then there is the concept of catharsis. We’ll almost never forget something that made us cry; the same is not true of laughter. Hamlet, Jude the Obscure, Wuthering Heights, A Farewell to Arms…. You get the meaning. Once in a while though, if not often, its not a bad idea to pick up a Catch 22!

    • Damyanti says:

      Yep, good old catharsis. We all need it to make us more compassionate humans. To me whether I’ll pick up a heavy or light read depends on my mood at any given time. I’ve been known to read Bridget Jones’ Diary and Human Traces by Sebastian Faulks on the same day, at different times 🙂

  • I would definitely prefer a thought-provoking read over fluff. But books don’t have to be dark, dismal, ‘stabbing’ works to be deep and rife with significance. Consider Mark Twain’s ‘Huckleberry Finn.’ On the superficial level, it’s a lively action-packed adventure laced with Twain’s unique and timeless humour. But as the reader looks deeper, there are many layers of complex ideas. IMHO this is the best sort of writing, and the most difficult to execute.

    • Damyanti says:

      Monideepa– yes, that’s a tough balance. Most great tragedies make us cry, and remain in our memories. Much harder to do with a comedy. I know what you mean by layers: a lot of good YA books do that today.

  • Hi, Damyanti,
    I read different genres, which keeps me happy. Sure, I like reading books that make me think and that resonate with me, but a carefree read balances things nicely.

  • nitin2550n says:

    I love to read that books which help me to increase my knowledge as well as provide inner peace.Books always make me Happy because I choose read that books which fruitful and valuable..books are my brain food.without the good books I feel a brain haemorrhage, I always like to keep good books with me for oxygen.


%d bloggers like this: