“I Would Prefer Not To”

Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street, by Herman Melville, was published in 1853 – making it slightly more than one hundred years older than me. It’s a novella. The copy I downloaded from Project Gutenberg is 44 ePages long. A physical copy in Powell’s City of Books’ catalog is 64 pages long.

It’s a book I’ve known about for a long time, but had never read until now.

BartlebyA lawyer in Manhattan employs two scriveners (copyists) and an office-boy. When his caseload increases, he advertises for a third scrivener. A man named Bartleby applies, and is hired.

At first, Bartleby does a high volume of excellent work. When the time comes to proofread the documents he’s written, however, Bartleby replies, simply, “I would prefer not to.” No amount of pleading or threats can budge Bartleby from his preference.

As time goes by, the list of things Bartleby would prefer not to do grows longer. He would prefer not to work. He would prefer not to leave the office at the end of the day. He would prefer not to accept the food offered by his coworkers. He would prefer not to resign. He would prefer not to be fired. He would prefer not to answer personal questions.

Bartleby seems to have a motive behind his behavior, but it is never explained.

The next day I noticed that Bartleby did nothing but stand at his window in his dead-end revery. Upon asking him why he did not write, he said that he had decided upon doing no more writing.

“Why, how now? What next?” exclaimed I. “Do no more writing?”

“No more.”

“And what is the reason?”

“Do you not see the reason for yourself,” he indifferently replied.

The lawyer is too compassionate to have Bartleby removed by force. His legal options are limited. (Bartleby is, technically, still employed, so he can’t be evicted. He lives in the office, so he can’t be considered a vagrant.) He tries offering Bartleby money and friendship, but Bartleby prefers not to accept any offers. The lawyer tries moving to another office, but this causes a whole lot of trouble.

This is a great book, but what’s it about, really? Is there a message here? Is it a condemnation, a social commentary, a “story of Wall-Street”, a joke, or simply an entertaining story? I don’t know, and, it seems, no one else does. There are plenty of theories out there, but no answers.

Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street is a riddle, an enigma – a Zen koan.

  • A book that’s under 150 pages
  • A book at least 100 years older than you


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