Life Advice from the Formidable Franz Kafka


Today, on his birthday, the Tel Aviv court ruled that several rare Franz Kafka manuscripts, which the Metamorphosis writer left to his friend Max Brod to destroy following his death, would be sent to the National Library of Israel. The collection will be published online. For now, we look to a catalogue of quotes from the German-language writer who knows a thing or two about alienation, mystical transformation, and, apparently, self-help. Here are a few pieces of life advice, some cheerier than others, from the formidable author.

The meaning of life is that it stops.

Always first draw fresh breath after outbursts of vanity and complacency.

A first sign of the beginning of understanding is the wish to die.

Start with what is right rather than what is acceptable.

Idleness is the beginning of all vice, the crown of all virtues.

Books are a narcotic.

Life’s splendor forever lies in wait about each one of us in all its fullness, but veiled from view, deep down, invisible, far off. It is there, though, not hostile, not reluctant, not deaf. If you summon it by the right word, by its right name, it will come.

My guiding principle is this: Guilt is never to be doubted.

Don’t despair, not even over the fact that you don’t despair.

I do not read advertisements. I would spend all of my time wanting things.

Anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old.

Self-control is something for which I do not strive. Self-control means wanting to be effective at some random point in the infinite radiations of my spiritual existence.

In the struggle between yourself and the world, side with the world.

So long as you have food in your mouth, you have solved all questions for the time being.

There is no need for you to leave the house. Stay at your table and listen. Don’t even listen, just wait. Don’t even wait, be completely quiet and alone. The world will offer itself to you to be unmasked; it can’t do otherwise; in raptures it will writhe before you.

A book should serve as the ax for the frozen sea within us.

One advantage in keeping a diary is that you become aware with reassuring clarity of the changes which you constantly suffer.

Association with human beings lures one into self-observation.

By imposing too great a responsibility, or rather, all responsibility, on yourself, you crush yourself.

Woman, or more precisely put, perhaps, marriage, is the representative of life with which you are meant to come to terms.

The spirit becomes free only when it ceases to be a support.

One must not cheat anyone, not even the world of its victory.

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.

“I usually solve problems by letting them devour me.”

“You can hold yourself back from the sufferings of the world, that is something you are free to do and it accords with your nature, but perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could avoid.”