Yes, out of all the authors looking for attention in this dog-eat-dog world, it had to be Franz Kafka. Yes, out of all the books staring out at me from the infinite rows of shelves, it had to be Metamorphosis. I expect that you're probably wondering why.
The reason actually lies in the little synopsis found on the back of the book:
WAKING AFTER A NIGHT OF TROUBLED DREAMS, Gregor is surprised to find himself trapped in the body of a hideous man-sized bug. As he lies on his shell and gazes into space, his mother and father begin calling to him from outside his bedroom door. He must get out of bed, they tell him. He has to go to work. They need his money to live.
Gregor replies to them nervously, his voice sounding strange to his ears.
He'll be out very soon, he says. He's just getting ready...
But he can't keep saying that for ever.
Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is a synopsis.
I'm sure that everybody's familiar with synopses, of course: They're the short outlines or summaries that you find printed on the back of most paperback novels. Why they're there is anyone's guess; I believe that it has something to do with the fact that some people are perfectly willing to try books that lie outside their normal stable of authors. If you subscribe to this assumption as well, then you're probably aware that a synopsis has to make the book sound pretty interesting in order to lure people in.
This one does. From my point of view, it's a very effective synopsis. It summarizes the story without spoiling it for people, it gives emphasis to the main character's unlikely situation, and it forces us to ask questions that can only be answered by turning the pages. Why has Gregor suddenly turned into a bug? How did it happen? Why don't his parents seem to care about him enough to open the door? And what do the dreams have to do with his suddenly awkward position?
You don't get many synopses like that, yes. At the very least, it sounded compelling enough to have me buy the stupid book, and that's not a common occurrence.
And for that matter, haven't I already pointed out that it's Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis? It's obviously not a title that you actively seek out at your local bookstore. Barring the whims of well-meaning educators everywhere, I'm even willing to bet that it hasn't seen the light of a bestseller list in a long, long time.
I have, of course, seen other copies of Metamorphosis before. They were the stoic, edumacated versions, though -- the ones marked with a little "Bantam Classics" logo (whatever that means), and a piece of Rennaissance-looking art on the front cover. They were the ones that came packaged with meaningless sections on explanation and critical analysis, not to mention some of the most sawdusty synopses on the back of each book.
In short, these other versions were the "glazeover" kind: The ones that line bookshelves in an endless series of similar cover layouts, all of them being so monochromatic that your eyes do nothing but glaze over the incidental titles.
The copy of Metamorphosis that I bought this afternoon happened to break the mold for me. It was a "classic" literary work that was packaged in a mildly interesting cover with a knockout synopsis, and the moment I finally pulled myself together, I realized that I just had to read the book. It was simply too attractive for me to do otherwise.
Is there a reason why all "classic" novels are packaged in such a way as to look like mass-produced clones of each other? I can only imagine that the publishers do things like that in order to cater to the sensibilities of modern education. Lord knows that everything we take up in Literature class should look like a textbook in some way.
The flaw in this reasoning, however, is that not all "classics" are taken up in a classroom setting. Yes, most of us probably got acquainted with Hamlet and The Odyssey back then, but not all schools are likely to have certain books on the curriculum. Only a certain percentage of us got to tackle Animal Farm, for example. Or The Lord of the Flies. Or The Catcher in the Rye.
If these books were timeless "classics" in every sense of the word, then they shouldn't feel as though we're forcing students to read them. Yes, we know that Animal Farm is, at its heart, a view on the (d)evolution of communist/socialist governance. Yes, William Golding wrote about societal breakdown due to the flaws inherent in humanity. Yes, Holden Caulfield is deeply afraid of growing up (and more than a little neurotic besides). No matter how often we preach and trumpet these assertions, they won't get people interested in the books by themselves. They don't do anything for the requirements of story or setting. In short, they're not good synopses.
Reading, I think, is invariably a matter of discovery. Having a good piece only becomes part of the equation in that regard -- you still have to get people interested in the darn thing. You have to grab them from the moment they glance at the title, or look at the cover, or scan the synopsis. None of this "educational classic" crap that simply gets students buying more copies of Barron's Book Notes. Make it sound compelling enough to pick up, and if the "classic" is really worth anything, then people will only be too happy to read it on their own.
This is how great books survive. Each new generation must be made to see these works as fantastic discoveries that they can take home and read, and not as dull manuscripts that inevitably get associated with boring literature classes. Every interested reader contributes a little more to a book's repertoire; Every indifferent reader kills a little of it in some way.
At this point, I must say that I honestly don't know where Franz Kafka stands on the matter. But I do know this: I bought the book earlier this afternoon, and I'm taking it home. And if it's as good as it sounds, then that means that Mr. Kafka's story will have one more person who can take the virtues of his work into the oncoming century.
You get what I'm saying?