The Bureaucrat’s Recommended Reading List

The unending and illogical madness of government bureaucracy didn’t truly hit me until I worked for the government. For one year, the term kafkaesque permeated my life and my unfortunately battered psyche. Sure, I had read plenty of Kafka’s works up to that time, but they didn’t resonate in the same way until I found myself running in circles only to ram head first into a wall of slow policies and paperwork covered in absurdity resulting in bad handwriting and 4:30 martinis. But this sort of insanity can be found in other works by other authors as well.

Bureaucrat's Reading List

According to Merriam-Webster, Kafkaesque is defined as :  of, relating to, or suggestive of Franz Kafka or his writings; especially :  having a nightmarishly complex, bizarre, or illogical quality <Kafkaesque bureaucratic delays>


Catch-22. “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.” One of the great American novels of the 20th Century, Joseph Heller’s World War II-set narrative finds bombardier Yossarian caught in an illogical roundabout that exams the insanity, idiocy, and other problematic facets of war.

Metropole. When a linguist boards the wrong plane in Budapest, he arrives in an unknown city where he can’t seem to understand anything anyone is saying. There is excessive queuing and official information is constantly changing from one day to the next.

The Passion According to G.H. A claustrophobic, ecstatic stream of consciousness begins when the maid quits, leading G.H. to go into the former employee’s room to find it spotless save for a cockroach that she goes on to kill. Language, memories, and philosophies are tangled around the lifeless vermin for inspection.

Invitation to a Beheading. I’ve always maintained that if you covered up Vladimir Nabokov’s name on the front cover and gave it to a new reader, they would immediately assume it was written by Kafka based on the style, tone, and premise. In an unnamed country, Cincinnatus C. is sentenced to death by beheading for being found guilty of “gnostical turpitude,” an undefined crime.

The Joke. This is Milan Kundera’s first novel and written during the brewing Prague Spring. Ludvik is sentenced to hard labor after sending a friend a joke written on a postcard that pokes fun at the communist regime. He is turned in and his trial is nothing more than a kangaroo court. 

The Garden Party.  The young Hugo is sent by his father to a garden party to meet a local bureaucrat who his father is certain will employ Hugo. The party-goers mistake him for a seasoned employee and soon Hugo is put in charge of liquidating the liquidation office. He fools them all by quickly mutating his language to that of the bureaucracy.

The CastleThis list wouldn’t be complete without Kafka, right? There are so many to choose from, but The Trial and The Castle are always cited as the most “kafkaesque” of them all. K. is a land surveyor who has been summoned to an unnamed town. He keeps trying to get into the castle to speak with a mysterious and unseen official. Paperwork and the unknowable are just two blockades to his pursuits.

These are just a few selections. Do you have any further recommendations?

Selected dialogue from The Garden Party,

The Garden Party

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    1. I actually did consider adding The Screwtape Letters because of the “middle management” setting, but opted out because even though it’s set in a literal Hellish bureaucratic landscape, Lewis’ purpose seemed more in line with his Christian apologetics than the kafkaesque absurdity.

      If there ever is a part II to this list, it will definitely be added, but I think the theme will be broader to include more.

  1. Out of all these,I’ve only read the Castle.
    I’ve been planning on buying Catch 22 for a while now,but didn’t have enough money.
    As for the rest,I’ll check them out! I knew about The Joke,but ignored that it could be termed ‘Kafkaesque’.(Instead I read Kundera’s best known work,which is The Unbearable Lightness of Being)

    1. Kundera offers up some really sharp and devastating works. The Unbearable Lightness.. is good as well, but The Joke shouldn’t be ignored. He has so many including Laughable Loves, which was also written in the 1960s.

      Catch-22 is a must. Check used book stores. I see this title available secondhand at affordable prices and of course there is always the public library, but I aggressively underline sentences and passages from this book.

  2. I think it’s funny you talk about hiding Nabokov’s name on the cover of Invitation to a Beheading because I read it without a dust jacket and only midway through realized I wasn’t sure of the author…so I can testify as to its excellent Kafkaesque tone. I’ve not read the Passion or Metropole. The Joke vies with the book of laughing and forgetting as my favorite Kundera but all the rest are definitely in my top 10.
    Good list

    1. The Joke really is superb. When I wrote this list, it gave me the itch to want to re-read it (there is also an excellent film adaptation from 1969).

      I hope to have a review of Metropole up in the near future. I’m glad that my hypothetical about not seeing the Nabokov cover can be attested to! He has written about that novel before and how he hadn’t heard of Kafka at the time of writing it. I have a hard time believing that.

  3. Interesting post. Another way to experience this form of “illogical madness” is to work in an industry that is suffocatingly regulated by the government… 🙂

    1. Oh, I’m sure. I’ve never felt so completely insane as when I dealt with government bureaucracy. I guess, one of the things that helps is to remind yourself that you’re not the mad one; it’s that everything around you is!

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