Billy Budd, Sailor and Other Stories
by Herman Melville
We have been placing books out on a table in the English hallway to help clear out our overstock in the book room, and make space for the new titles that we have been purchasing, and I have seen a lot of our titles (Night, Huckleberry Finn, Tuesdays With Morrie, Plainsong) get swept up in nearly no time. And yet our supply of Herman Melville’s short fiction remains untouched. I understand, to an extent. 19th century fiction is not for everyone, and Melville is not an easy read (although our copies of Moby Dick are being grabbed up pretty rapidly…) And I do not heartily endorse the title story – it’s pretty predictable, really. But this collection contains one of the best short stories of the 19th century, possibly of the entire history of American literature: Bartleby (also known sometimes as Bartleby the Scrivener)
Does the man have you down? Are you tired of jumping through other people’s hoops? Well, so is Bartleby, a crumple of a character who works in a miserable Wall Street scrivener’s office, hand-writing copies of documents for hours, days, a lifetime. But as his boss brings him additional tasks to complete, he begins to reply to them with an emotionless, “I would prefer not to.” Not an outright refusal. Just a statement of preference. It has been described elsewhere as the “Meh” of the 19th century – an apathetic dismissal of menial drudgery. And the boss doesn’t know what to do with it. So Bartleby just remains there, preferring not to do anything.
The line itself has become a sort of banner for the disenfranchised. Tote bags proudly carry Bartleby’s words. There is a Tumblr page dedicated to Bartleby’s line. It has even been turned into an ironic justification for not reading Bartleby the Scrivener.
The best part is, that at about 35 pages or so, this is a story that you can knock out in a single sitting, and have knowledge of one of the more memorable characters in American Literature. And the next time you are being asked to perform some ludicrous task at work, or at college (but surely not at BHS), you can drain the emotion from your face, take a deep breath, look at the person making the request, and hit them with Bartleby’s motto. Get a copy while they are still there!