Like many others, in high school I read Herman Melville's inscrutable short story "Bartleby, the Scrivener." This tale, of the law clerk who inexplicably refuses to complete standard tasks, was mysterious and impenetrable.
Bartleby's immortal line is "I would prefer not to." This is what he frequently says to the attorney (never named) who is his ostensible superior. This attorney never fires Bartleby, whose refusal to complete his assigned tasks causes more work for his resentful colleagues.
I had not pondered Bartleby's firm refusals for many years. For me this was just an odd little story assigned in high school.
This has now changed, thanks to Andrew Kahn's brilliant annotation of "Bartleby" for Slate. Accompanied by Garbriel Roth's excellent audio-reading of "Bartleby" for Slate Plus members, I now appreciate "Bartleby" for the brilliant work of literature it has long been.
Whether Bartleby's refusal is an act of political resistance or an expression of enlightened detachment from everyday cares, his example is worth pondering.
Although Kahn is modest about the scope of his outstanding annotations, his work does chart a course for understanding the strands of interpretation that have attached to "Bartleby" since its appearance in 1853. He lights the interpretative paths, and we can choose which of those to follow.
Meanwhile Roth's vivid reading highlights the musicality and verve of Melville's prose. I smiled frequently and chuckled often -- particularly in its early passages, "Bartleby" is hilarious. As the conflict deepens between Bartleby and the attorney, the attorney makes a genuine -- if pompous -- attempt to discern Bartleby's motivations. Here the language becomes more reflective and searching. As Bartleby is forcibly removed from the law offices (where he had been living without authorization) the tone becomes mournful. All of these transitions are effortless, perfectly cadenced, and a reminder of how good writing can be.
Melville was a virtuoso, of course, the author of one the most essential books of American literature in Moby Dick. But even though I could not see it in high school, he also brought all his skills to bear in this masterpiece of a short story. Although you might prefer not to re-read "Bartleby," you are henceforth advised to do so.