You’ll remember my love [sic] of Herman Melville HERE, how I couldn’t get his stuff down, not with a spoon-full of sugar, not at the point of a gun. I’ve read long windy lofty books, Atlas Shrugged, Anna Karinina, and currently, Quicksilver. I’ve liked them all to various degrees. But Melville, “He tasks me; he heaps me”.
In other words, I could never get in tune with him. Even Billy Budd mauled me.
But my crazy sometime’s daughter / sometimes groupie Denise mentioned this book years back with the old “You haven’t read ‘Bartleby, The Scrivener’? Oh, you gotta read it!!!’
Yeah, okay. Every reader’s heard that one before.
But I happened to think of her the other day and looked online and there was Bartleby, The Scrivener listed in Project Gutenberg (old books online). I’ve read from their site before (Captains Courageous) so I looked both ways, made sure everyone was out at lunch, and burned 34 pages off on the work printer.
Then, walking back to the desk, I started reading it.
Found myself sneaking another glance. A further glance. Between two meetings, I bolted down a page or two.
Green Eggs and Ham Moment – I’m reading (and ENJOYING) Melville!
So the story is about a small clerking office, a shut-in, constricting, enclosed sort of employment enjoyed by people out of Dickens novels. Here, it’s manually copying legal documents, page by page, line by line, word by word. And then the team sits (perhaps in pairs, perhaps collectively) and reads over the copies, word by word.
It makes me want to hug my HP Deskjet, I’ll tell you.
Anyway, the office is described in its close, cubic glory. And then the three clerks are described (also in close, cubic glory). Some laughs there. And then a new man is hired, Bartleby, a quiet, slinking man. In today’s media, he’d be your ax murderer or hotel keeper, the guy with no past and little presence. But no, no splatterfest here, just a guy who does what he’s told, copies what’s put before him, nose to the grindstone.
Until, one day, he won’t.
“I would prefer not to.”
Flummoxed, his employer (the narrator) tries to reason with him, to get him to do work. First, he won’t read back. Then, he won’t copy. He won’t nip down to the post office. It’s like he’s shutting down. He prefers not to.
And it comes to light that he’s living in the office, sleeping at his desk, never leaving.
So this is not Ahab and the Whale, crashing in backdrops of brine and spray. This is one little office worker who shuts down, and his employer who is too passive to move him. It is a battle of ineffectiveness, of minute forces slowly pushing. And as one reads, one gets the impression that the employer, in his own way, is just as ineffective as his lights-going-out employee.
But it was interesting, and haunting, and sad and expansive (in that way literature is). So skip the whales and virtuous sailor boys, have a look at Bartleby. Its good.
You can get a free copy HERE.