Often an appreciation clings to many other appreciations. My cousin gave me a shirt a few years ago that says “Never Be A Bartleby” on the front and “I Would Prefer Not To” on the back. It probably means something when I choose to wear that shirt on any particular day.
Apparently at one time I told my cousin how much I loved that story, and that made enough of an impression that she made a shirt with the saying on it. That’s cool. My sister has also made me some cool shirts over the years. It’s easy to make a quick list of things I appreciate related to this item: my cousin, her gift, the shirt my sister made lightly making fun of our sister, my sisters, my family, Herman Melville, characters in stories (Bartleby in particular), short stories, stories of people turning in essays consisting entirely of “I would prefer not to.”, my first job interview out of college when the interviewer asked me the last book I finished reading and I answered Moby Dick (because I had finished it that day) and I could tell she didn’t believe me which is more of a story than an appreciation. I appreciate stories, etc.
Thinking of Bartleby makes me think of other characters I love. Elroy Berdahl in Tim O’Brien’s short story “On the Rainy River” collected in The Things They Carried. Great story, great book. Huck Finn. Pastor John Ames in Marilynne Robinson’s amazing Gilead. Read that book! (Also: If you haven’t, imaginary reader, go read President Obama’s recent interview of Robinson in The New York Review Of Books. It’s great. It’s also the President choosing to interview someone. I love this for thousands of reasons.) I could go on.
But back to Bartleby. “Bartleby the Scrivener: a story of Wall Street” by Herman Melville is a story that has stuck with me for years. I have always loved the IDEA of the story. Bartleby was a scrivener. A scrivener was someone who copied down documents, a human XEROX machine. Bartleby started to say “I would prefer not to” to his boss. And his boss moved on. And then that’s all Bartleby would say…and people weren’t used to it…and their reactions were humorous.
And the reason, I think, that I like this story so much is that people (and the people I am around the most are teenagers) are constantly petitioning to not…or expressing their opinions about not wanting to do something. “I would prefer not”…. to take out my notes, read a book, go to class, listen respectfully, sit down, shut up, run, jump, whatever else…and it’s funny because it’s irrelevant and it’s annoying, and we all feel that some days, and about some things. I would prefer not to participate in reality. I would prefer that gravity was not 9.8 meters per second squared, but that’s just the way it is.
I love the sentiment: Never Be A Bartleby. Because we all are, or can be, Bartleby. I would prefer not to be in front of a bunch of pubescent creatures finding curly hairs in their armpits and complaining about reality, but here I am. I would prefer not to…lots of things. This is an honest attitude, but maybe not a pleasant one to be around, or an attitude to spread. I like the idea of the story. It brings up questions. Perhaps the things you prefer not to do shouldn’t be done at all, but then that can become instantly problematic. I like Bartleby, because like the narrator of the story, I am confused at what to do with “I would prefer not to” when it is said by others, or when it is said by me.
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