The Company We Keep

The Company We Keep

He died almost 100 years ago, but Franz Kafka’s voice remains oddly relevant today. He wrote such bizarre and affecting stories that he left behind his own adjective, “kafkaesque”, to describe strange and nightmarish situations embedded in everyday life. With no shortage of the strange these days, we were particularly excited to have Books@Work featured in The New York Times – pairing Kafka’s iconic book, The Metamorphosis, with a powerful article on social isolation and loneliness, written by Dhruv Khullar, a physician and professor of healthcare policy at Columbia University.

Metamorphosis Cover

Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, W.W. Norton & Company

Kafka’s stories feature disaffected characters who push the edges of the human condition – and often fail. The Metamorphosis is no exception. Traveling salesman Gregor Samsa wakes one morning to find that he has been transformed into a hideous bug. Unable to communicate, Gregor finds his sense of self and his relationship to his family and his work irreparably destroyed, with dire consequences.

Despite the macabre metaphor, Kafka does not exaggerate Gregor’s desperation. Khullar’s article exposes the profound effects of loneliness and their scientific links to sleep deprivation, inflammation, immune damage, cognitive decline and stress. The New York Times piece adds many questions to consider of both the original text and the contemporary article, drawing on a wealth of parallels to our lives today. Designed as a lesson plan for teachers, the piece nevertheless offers interesting fodder for a conversation among friends.

Through Gregor’s odd predicament, Kafka forces us to consider how much we define our humanity by the work we do and the company we keep; through Khullar’s research, we are reminded of our timeless – and human –need for personal connection and social support.

Image: Jan van Kessel the Elder, A Dragon-fly, Two Moths, a Spider and Some Beetles, With Wild Strawberries, 17th Century, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

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Ann Kowal Smith

Ann Kowal Smith

Ann Kowal Smith is the Founder and Executive Director of Books@Work.