I’ve been listening to Franz Kafka’s The Castle in the car going to and from work, and I find my mind wandering a lot. Now, before I go on, I want to point out that William James says that the wandering mind is a sign of great intelligence. So who’s more intelligent: the person who reads Kafka or the person who gets constantly distracted while reading Kafka?
I’m used to tangents. I’m one of those readers who can get to the bottom of a paragraph and realize that my eyes have gone over every word although I don’t remember any of them because I was thinking about something else. The effect is even more dramatic with this audiobook. The voice keeps reading no matter what I’m doing or thinking about. It’s not like my ear has to move back and forth to catch the sounds coming from the speaker. But audiobooks actually usually keep my attention better than printed books. I think I heard, understood, and enjoyed 99.7% of the words of Tom Standage’s History of the World in 6 Glasses. So what’s going on with Kafka?
Most of my parallel thinking (that sounds more directional than “mind-wandering” or “wool-gathering,” doesn’t it?) has had to do with a certain former employer of mine. I hear about the letters from mysterious figureheads scolding K on senseless grounds, and I start thinking about letters I and colleagues sometimes received from “leaders” who didn’t like to show their faces. I hear conversations between K, who tries to make rational sense of it all, and the villagers, who defend every weird policy or event with sounds that have the form of an argument but not the sense, and I recall many baffling conversations with colleagues defending the status quo with non sequiturs. I hear about a group of buildings with no clear purpose, and I think of incessant construction projects during recessions and especially a tour through one new building by a guide charged with the task of finding someone who could think of a purpose for the empty $20,000,000 edifice. (Ironically, this was called the Stephenson Building.)
But these bewildering situations have become a part of my past, and I realized something just the other day as I signed an email. For a long time at this other institution, I used to sign my emails with a simple K. I did it mostly to save time and to lend a note of informality to the message. But I also had Kafka’s beleaguered protagonist in mind. Then I noticed recently that I’ve been signing with my whole name: Ken. I’m no longer K.