What Makes a Book Good?

what makes a book good according to kafka

I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us.… [W]e need the 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 inside us. That is my belief. (Franz “little ray of sunshine” Kafka)

You really have to wish Kafka had written a review of Pride and Prejudice.

Much as I love the Immortal K, and I do, I don’t identify with his arguably narrow literary taste. There is more than one way to bust up the frozen sea inside, and some of us are more tropical on the interior than arctic. Most readers like a good stab and the occasional wallop, and goodness knows there’s nothing like being thrown under a train, but as there is more to life than grieving, there is more to curling up with a book than being overwhelmed by disaster.

Sometimes, for example, we read a book because we want to be scared witless. Sometimes we enjoy living in a world where conspiracy theories are true. Sometimes we like to beat up criminals with our hands and feet or brains or side arms or special powers. Sometimes we like to die; sometimes we like to come back. Sometimes we want to get married. Sometimes we want other people to fight over us. Sometimes it all comes down to a horse or a dress or a car. Sometimes sheer silliness is sublime.

What makes a book good or a classic or a guilty pleasure or the material evidence of a human soul? With brains as big and crinkly as ours, how can we weigh and measure the merit of a book based on criteria that may cause one big, crinkly brain to shimmer and wag but leave another inert? Such questions lead to bloodied fields of uncivil discourse and howls of “troll” from earnest readers, but in such a cause, even P. G. Wodehouse may provide the axe that breaks the frozen sea.

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