Thursday, August 24, 2006

I Never Metamorphosis I Didn't Like

Every now and then, something will cause me to break my habit of browsing without buying. Earlier this afternoon, the culprit happened to be a most unlikely subject:




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?

18 comments:

Dominique said...

Don't forget: there's the ickiness factor. Cockroach on the cover? Sure winner!

Ferdz said...

That is a very interesting synopsis! I've been very interested to read Franz Kafka lately after reading Murakami's "Kafka on the Shore" but haven't gone out to buy it.

Now this synopsis has got me curious...

Ailee Through the Looking Glass said...

I saw the same edition of Metamorphosis in Fully Booked, but I passed it over for a copy of Nabokov's Lolita, also repackaged with a lovely contemporary cover. I've been on a classics kick lately, operating on an I-have-to-read-this-before-I-die (or, alternately, I-can't-go-on-living-without-reading-this) mentality. I believe great books survive for good reason, beyond snazzy covers and smart blurbs, and as a self-respecting bookworm, I want in on the action. But I agree, classics need those slick marketing tools and modern touches to make it in our dumbed-down, dangerously-close-to-illiterate digital world. I taught high school English for 2 years and I know how difficult it is to force-feed teenagers with Shakespeare and Homer. But with a little creativity-- and a LOT of cornball games-- it can be done. As Mary Poppins gaily trills, just a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down. Whatever works.

Ailee Through the Looking Glass said...

P.S. Great blog post title, by the way. :)

Sean said...

Dominique: The cover was interesting to begin with -- it's what got me looking at the book -- but it was the synopsis that really got my attention.

That said, if it were possible to make books into bestsellers by placing random bugs on their covers, then I've practically got a bookstore in my own closet. :)

Ferdz: Weird, isn't it? It's not exactly the kind of synopsis you'd expect to be written for a literary "classic".

That, and the book only ran me about P210.00. After Powerbooks' August discount, it came to P172.00 total. (It's only about a hundred pages long with large fonts, though.)

Ailee: The back of the book listed Nabokov's "Lolita" as another of its publications, although I didn't see it on the Powerbooks shelves. I would have picked it up if its synopsis had sounded as interesting, though.

I'm of the belief that most literate people are perfectly willing to read stuff as long as they hold some form of interest in it. For that matter, I'm also of the belief that a "classic" can only be considered a "classic" if it can maintain the interest of an audience over the long-term. There are therefore at least two necessary pieces to the equation: The marketing must be good enough to grab peoples' attention, and the work itself has to be of enough skill to maintain it.

Finally, the title of this post is actually a reference to a Magic: the Gathering card, which happens to depict a humanoid figure in advanced stages of mutation. :)

kat said...

None of this "educational classic" crap that simply gets students buying more copies of Barron's Book Notes.

Haha! True. I survived Dickens, Shakespeare and Homer with the help of that. Though in a way, I'm glad that there was that "required reading" back in elementary and highschool. I've learned to appreciate them over the years. :p But I pretty much agree with you that "a matter of discovery."

Sean said...

Kat: I think I gained an appreciation of Shakespeare from school, but I always hated the books themselves, because they were so full of idle background information and useless critiques. I have a similar unfortunate perception of The Catcher in the Rye: While I have nothing against Salinger, I will forever associate his book with an absolutely boring plain white cover because nobody was creative enough to package it better. It's not the works, really -- it's the amount of effort that people use in publishing them.

Ailee Through the Looking Glass said...

I have the same unfortunate feelings about Catcher in the Rye. I don't understand why in the whole of Metro Manila, there only seems to be one edition of this supposedly great classic-- and that's the boring, plain white cover with nothing but a few pathetic multi-colored stripes in the corner to liven it up. I don't know how much the cover contributed to my not liking the book, but to this day I cannot bring myself to point out anything I liked about it, and am still reluctant to reread it.

Conversely, I love the Folger editions of Shakespeare's major plays. There is a running glossary and brief explanatory notes on each opposite page, which are helpful without being obtrusive. Without them, I would never have come to a deeper understanding and better appreciation of Shakespeare (and I would have had a tougher time teaching Macbeth to a class of bored high school juniors!).

Sean said...

Ailee: I get the feeling that we're talking about the same Shakespeare editions. While I'm quite happy with the glossaries and notes included in the Folger versions, they still hold more than a few features that I feel should be left out. (There's a section on well-known quotes on the back of each book, for one, and I don't think we need the editors telling us what lines are notable and what lines aren't.)

Strangely, I feel that one of the better ways to teach Shakespeare nowadays would involve more active media such as plays and movies. But then again, that wouldn't be surprising, seeing that these works were originally written for the purpose of performance. Or maybe I'm just looking for an excuse to recommend "Othello" to high-school audiences. :)

jeff-reiji said...

IMHO, sometimes, "forcing" students to read "boring" literature enables them to appreciate yung mga bagay na nandun na pero hindi nila napapansin... which will lead me to an array of classic Philippine literature I was forced, then learned, to love... bata, bata paano ka ginawa... dead stars... and the likes...

on another note, I was reading some writing newsletter and it made think that in order for me to have some sort of platform... tama na ung explanation... I published the synopsis of rhythm management and first profile of my character in my blog. I need your opinion about it to know if I did it right. thanks a lot. c",)

gumdrop said...

Hey Sean! I tagged you! http://canned.blogs.friendster.com/the_houdini_can/2006/08/_book_tag.html
Will be looking forward to seeing a few lines of this book you bought; if it's the one nearest you at the moment ;)

Sean said...

Reiji: I want to believe that, yes, but at the moment it feels a little optimistic. It's probably due to the belief that a lot of factors are involved in book appreciation, though. I suppose that Literature classes might sometimes introduce us to works that we would otherwise have overlooked... but that's still not much of an excuse for the bland covers and the nonexistent synopses.

On "Rhythm Management", I'd like to see a story one of these days: Something concrete that shows the characters moving around and chewing the scenery. That would give more life to their profiles, I think, which was one of the problems I had with the Antaria works.

Gumdrop: Er... "Metamorphosis" is conveniently right next to the computer, and it doesn't have a page 123. What now? :)

Der Fuhrer said...

hehe. I just bought the Pengiun edition of Noli Me Tangere. It looked really spiffy and the translation is not bad either.

Sean said...

Der Fuhrer: Penguin did Noli Me Tangere? I'd sure like to see that one... where'd you get it? Powerbooks?

Der Fuhrer said...

yep. I asked Banzai to get me one (since I live nowhere near Manila).

I also found a copy in NBS Superbranch.

Sean said...

Der Fuhrer: Shoot. That means I'll have to look for it myself. Hopefully it'll still be available for a while...

Der Fuhrer said...

good luck then!

Sean said...

Der Fuhrer: Thanks. I get the feeling that I'll need it...