When Olga Tokarczuk was belatedly awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature in 2019, the Swedish Academy specifically mentioned one of her works as her magnum opus. That book was Ksiegi Jakubowe, her ninth novel and the book that earned her her second Nike Award. However, the book was not available in English until 2021. Jennifer Croft, the same translator who worked on her 2007 novel, Bieguni, (published as Flights in 2018), worked on translating this labyrinthine work, titled The Books of Jacob. It is a complex work but nevertheless, it was immersive. It is easily one of my favorite reads of 2021, perhaps all-time. For this quotable quote update, I am sharing some lines and passages from this masterpiece that have left an impression on me.

Do check out my complete review of this literary work by clicking here.


“When you look at the world as good, then evil becomes the exception, somehting missed, sometimes mistaken – and nothing suits you. But if you were to switch it around – say the world is evil, while good is the exception, then everything works out elegantly, understandably. Whe don’t we want to see what is obvious?”

~ Olga Tokarczuk, The Books of Jacob

“Let him be cursed by day and cursed by night. Cursed when he goes to bed and when he gets up, when he enters his home and when he leaves it. May you never forgive him, Lord, and may you never recognize him! May your anger burn from here on out against this man, may you weigh him down with all your curses, and may his name be erased from the Book of Life. We warn all never to exchange a word with him, in conversation or in writing, never to grant him any favors, never to be under one roof with him, not to be within four cubits of him, and not to read any document dictated by him or written in his hand.”

~ Olga Tokarczuk, The Books of Jacob

Because in real life, unlike in history books, stories come to us not in their entirety but in bits and pieces, broken segments and partial echoes, a full sentence here, a fragment there, a clue hidden in between. In life, unlike in books, we have to weave our stories out of threads as fine as the gossamer veins that run through a butterfly’s wings.

~ Elif Shafak, The Island of Missing Trees

“Religions, laws, books, and old customs have all been worn out. He who reads those old books and observes those laws and customs, it’s as if he’s always facing backward and yet he must move forward. That is why he will stumble and ultimately fail since everything that has been has come from the side of death. A wise man, meanwhile, will look ahead, through death, as thous this were merely a muslin curtain, and he will stand outside of life.”

~ Olga Tokarczuk, The Books of Jacob

To be impatient means never really living, being always in the future, in what will happen, but which is after all not yet here. Do not impatient people resemble spirits who are never here in this place, and now, in this very moment, but rather sticking their heads out of life like those wanderers who supposedly, when they found themselves at the end of the world, just looked onward, beyond the horizon? What did they see there? What is it than an impatient person hopes to glimpse?

~ Olga Tokarczuk, The Books of Jacob

So it is: our parents remind us what we like least about ourselves, and in their growing old we see our many sins, I thought, but perhaps this was something more – sometimes it happens that the souls of parents and children are fundamentally hostile to one another and they meet in life in order to remedy this hostility. But it doesn’t always work.

~ Olga Tokarczuk, The Books of Jacob

“Some people have as sense of unearthly things, just as others have an excellent sense of smell or hearing or taste. They can feel the sibtle shifts in the great and complicated body of the world. And some of these have so honed that inner sight that they can even tell where a holy spark has fallen, notice its glow in the very place you would least expect it. The worse the place, the more fervently the spark gleams, flickers – and the warmer and purer is its light.”

~ Olga Tokarczuk, The Books of Jacob

“There is a particular kind of science that exists on these sorts of estates – the science of coaxing out bloodstains. For centuries it has been taught to future wives and mothers. If a university for women ever came about, it would be the most important subject. Childbirth, menstruation, war, fights, forays, pogroms, raids – all of it sheds blood, ever at the ready just beneath the skin. What to do with that internal substance that has the gall to make its way out, what kind of lye to wash it out, what vinegar to rinse it with? Perhaps try dampening a rag with a couple of tears and then rubbing carefully. Or soak in saliva. It befalls sheets and bedclothes, underwear, petticoats, shirts, aprons, bonnets and kerchiefs, lace cuffs and frills, corsets, and sukmanas. Carpets, floorboards, bandages, and uniforms.”

~ Olga Tokarczuk, The Books of Jacob

Once swallowed, the piece of paper lodges in her esophagus, near her heart. Saliva-soaked. The specially prepared black ink dissolves slowly now, the letters losing their shapes within the human body, the word splits in two: substance and essence. When the former goes, the latter, formlessly abiding, may be absorbed into the body’s tissues, since essences always seek carriers in matter – even if this is to be the cause of many misfortunes.

~ Olga Tokarczuk, The Books of Jacob

“Every place has two characters – every place is double. What is sublime is also fallen. What is clement is at the same time base. In the deepest darkness lies the spark of the most powerful light, and vice versa: where omnipresent clarity reigns, a pit of darkness lurks inside the seed of light.”

~ Olga Tokarczuk, The Books of Jacob

He said that there are four types of readers. There is the reading sponge, the reading funnel, the reading colander, and the reading sieve. The sponge absorbs everything it comes into contact with; and it is evident he remembers much of it later, too. But he is not able to filter out what is most important. The funnel takes in what he reads at one end, while at the other, everything he’s read pours out of him. The strainer lets through the wine and keeps the sediment; he ought not to read at all — it would be infinitely better if he simply dedicated himself to some manual trade. The sieve, on the other hand, separates out the chaff, to give a result of only the finest grains.

~ Olga Tokarczuk, The Books of Jacob

There is something wonderful in being a stranger, in being foreign, something to be relished, something as alluring as sweets. It is good not to be able to understand a language, not to know the customs, to glide like a spirit among others who are distant and unrecognizable. Then a particular kind of wisdom awakens – an ability to surmise, to grasp the things that aren’t obvious. Cleverness and acumen come about. A person who is a stranger gains a new point of view, becomes, whether he likes it or not, a particular type of sage. Who was it who convinced us that being comfortable and familiar was so great? Only foreigners can truly understand the way things work.

~ Olga Tokarczuk, The Books of Jacob