In a November 1903 letter, found in the altogether enchanting compendium Letters to Friends, Family and Editors (public library), 20-year-old Franz Kafka writes to his childhood friend, the art historian Oskar Pollak:
Some books seem like a key to unfamiliar rooms in one’s own castle.
A few months later, in January of 1904, he expounds on this sentiment in another letter to Pollak:
I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us.
If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it 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 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.