I have a confession: I have never read Moby Dick. This leads to my next confession: I don’t intend to. Maybe this makes me a poor excuse for a scholar. Maybe I’m ok with this. His style isn’t one I particularly enjoy, so it is somewhat ironic that my favorite piece of literature is “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” If you’ve never read it, click the link and read it. I’ll wait.
My final confession: Bartleby is my hero. This is not ironic. I want to be Bartleby when I grow up, minus that whole dying in prison part. He doesn’t feel like doing what he is employed to do, so his reply to pretty much everything in the story is, “I would prefer not do.” And then he doesn’t do whatever it is he would prefer not to do. That, in and of itself, is worthy of my adoration, but it gets even better. Bartleby gets away with it. Every. single. time. That, my friends, is why Bartleby is my hero. He gets paid for work he never does. He gets fired, but he would prefer not to get fired, so he keeps showing up and his boss keeps paying him. He moves into his bosses offices, but would prefer not to move out, so he doesn’t. The fact that going to the authorities is the narrator’s last resort is nothing short of mindboggling.
Now, I should probably clarify why, exactly, Bartleby is my hero. It’s not because he gets away with being lazy or by basically becoming a moocher. It’s because he says something and then his actions back up what he says. How many times have we “preferred not to,” and yet we did it anyway. Perhaps we felt obligated. Maybe we didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. Or, refusing could be a bad move politically, so we bite our tongues and do what we would prefer not to do. Bartleby doesn’t do that. He also never refuses outright any request. He just says, “I would prefer not to,” and then he doesn’t do it. Emulating Bartleby could become problematic if taken to the extreme, but I think we could all benefit from the occasional, “I would prefer not to.”