Re-Living High School English

“The Metamorphosis” was one of those books that I was forced to read in high school, and that I sped through in a single weekend, expecting or hoping for it to be like a best-seller, like “Alien” or “The Fly” on the printed page. When I saw immediately that it wasn’t written with Stephen King or Dean Koontz excitement or urgency, I became disappointed…then read it looking for buzz words, answers to the coming quiz or test in my AP English course.

That’s how most high schoolers read, I suspect, and it took awhile before I realized that there are so many different ways to read a text, and that my experience in reading some of the most important works of world literature was weakened by the attitude that I was reading “an assignment” and not “something fun.” The experience is ruined for millions upon millions of readers, and probably has a lot to do with the way that most teenagers and 20-somethings view books in general, and why so many potential readers decide upon other leisure activities, or shy away from books forever.

All that said…I recently decided to re-read a few of the books that I hated from high school (and also created a list of some of the books I’d avoided because some other high school friend had griped about them). When I re-read “Heart of Darkness,” I was absolutely blown away. How was it that I couldn’t remember a single sentence of this book? How was it that I’d read this entire novel with a grimace, that I’d told friends for many years that it “sucked?” Conrad’s work–perhaps because I now understood the context so much better, and perhaps because I expected and appreciated the density of the prose, rather than hoping for some dialogue-and-action-heavy “Da Vinci Code”-style action/adventure story–suddenly came alive, and I was embarrassed for ever having dismissed it. The same, however, was not true of James Joyce, whose work (a decade later) still felt flat and joyless.

But what about “The Metamorphosis” (and a collection of other stories that I hadn’t read in high school)? Was I right, way back in high school, or was this another concise gem, like Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness?”

I decided to read each story slowly. Take my time. Pay attention to the prose. This would not be a labor, but an appreciation. And I would read the introduction (something I always do with world literature now, and something I always avoided when I was a high schooler…now I absolutely crave the context). And I would wait awhile before truly formulating and articulating my thoughts. Let it marinate.

Well. So many years later, and so many great books having been read and placed back onto my bookshelf (“The Corrections,” “Cold Mountain,” “A Prayer for Owen Meany,” “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” hundreds of books that now–collectively, I hope–give me some credibility to share an educated opinion), I still found myself sighing and shrugging as I read each of Kafka’s stories. I still found myself saying, “So what?” It wasn’t boring (as I’d though in high school), just pointless, and rarely sparkling with the sort of artistic vigor that I find even in literature that I don’t care for. Maybe I’m too Millennial, but as I read Kafka, I just thought, “You seem like an angsty high school writer. Next, you’re going to write a poem about how the world doesn’t understand you, then start an emo band.”

Was Kafka important to the development of world literature? Sure. I’m still not exactly certain how. Maybe in the same way that “The Blair Witch Project” showed how ridiculously CGI-heavy Hollywood had become, and that sometimes gritty and intimate are better? I don’t know. His work definitely re-defined the standard ideas of plot and character, as Kurt Vonnegut discusses to comic effect in “A Man Without a Country.” But still…as I was reading, I just didn’t care about the characters, about the situations, about the language. Often, it didn’t even feel like Kafka cared.

I am glad, however, that I re-read “The Metamorphosis.” I’m glad that I gave my full attention to Kafka, that I didn’t just dismiss it from the start.

Whenever I write something like this, of course, there’s someone who attacks me and tells me that I just “don’t get it,” that I’m too critical, that this author/ filmmaker is a genius and who the hell am I to…blah blah blah. Listen: if you love the book, God bless you. I’m happy for you. But Kafka is like a Scotch, or an India Pale Ale, or a fine cigar…it doesn’t matter how refined you are, or how smart you are, or how well-read you are…if you don’t like it, you don’t like it. I’m always willing to try a cigar if someone else is paying, but I’ll be honest: it always just tastes like smoke to me.

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