Why You Should Read Kafka Before You Waste Your Life

By JAMES HAWES

There are biographies of literary icons, and then there’s James Hawes’ s Why You Should Read Kafka Before You Waste Your Life. In this case, you can judge a book by its cover. An ironic play on Kafka’s story “Metamorphosis” has the insect lounging cross-legged, reading a bug-sized version of this book that’s illustrated with a postage-stamp sized photo of “our hero” brooding darkly. Though Hawes holds a Ph.D. in German literature, his content is anything but dry or academic. Instead, he reveals Kafka the man in an extended, enthusiastic conversation, full of rambling asides and copious footnotes that read like conspiratorial whispers: “In the summer of 1913, Kafka bangs endlessly on about ‘necessity,’ that favorite concept of every German since Hegel who ever planned to do something morally dubious.” Hawes takes great pains to put the oft misunderstood Kafka in the context of his time by offering a snapshot of the sweeping changes that overtook Mitteleuropa in the early 20th century. Then, he fleshes out the many sides of Kafka the person: lawyer, writer, smitten suitor, hypochondriac with a taste for bizarre porn. Using letters, diary excerpts, news clippings, photos, and illustrations (yes, some of the contents of the locked bookcase are revealed!), Hawes produces an edifying and thoroughly entertaining portrait that urges readers to revisit those classic stories once more because, he argues, “Kafka the writer sees more honestly than Kafka the man.”

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