Continuing the Book Week theme...
The other night, while riding the subway, I sat across from a man and a woman. They were strangers to me and to each other.
The man was double-fisting electronic gadgets--a Blackberry in one hand and an iPod in the other--tapping and scrolling without cease.
The woman was reading a paperback novel--Wuthering Heights.
I read Wuthering Heights in high school.
Looking at the woman, I had some idea of what was in her head: shadowy moors, a damp Yorkshire manor, the thwarted passions of Heathcliff and Cathy. I felt connected to her in our semi-shared experience.
I remembered being 16 years old and what that felt like, when I learned the word "misanthropist" from an elderly, blue-haired teacher who repeated, again and again, "Heathcliff is what you call a real misanthropist." Later, I discovered that "misanthropist" is not a word, and that the proper word is "misanthrope." But either way, the meaning is the same: A general dislike for humanity, often originating in feelings of social alienation.
Which is what I felt when I looked at the man with the gadgets. He fingered and clicked, flicked his eyes back and forth, up and down. I felt anxious when I looked at the man. I felt disconnected and alienated.
Overhead, among the subway advertisements, a poster displayed the first sentence from Kafka's Metamorphosis: "When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous bug."
Kafka's novella has often been said to be about dehumanizing alienation in the face of modernity, in the onslaught of new technologies ushered in by the Industrial Revolution.
So there it was, that opening line, on a subway car in 2009, over a pair of strangers--one with her mind in a Victorian novel printed on paper, the other with his brain ping-ponging between the two poles of a postmodern technological couple.
Today, maybe we all feel a bit buggy.