Tuesday, August 11, 2009
The impertinence of Bartleby: he does not negotiate the terms of his employment; he decides and acts off his own bat. Despite his mildness, his is the grossest kind of insubordination. Subordinates who take their own preferences in hand and follow them up challenge the legitimacy of authority. Thus the latent, nearly extinguished utopianism of "Bartleby": what would be if all the wretched of the earth declared, "I prefer not to"?
The essay from which this is quoted (in the February 18, 2008 issue of "Identity Theory"--"a literary website, sort of"--was then part of a book-length manuscript that was published in the Spring under the title After Paradise: Essays on the Fate of American Writing.
Part cultural reflection, part lyrical criticism, part idiosyncratic literary history, After Paradise attempts to restore a sense of the original strangeness of American literature and culture by pushing the boundaries of the essay form. 
I have not yet read it but intend to pick up a copy when I'm down in the States next week. I am a sucker for good essays. And I'm especially drawn to discussions about ol' Bartleby, whose "I prefer not to" principle, has unfortunately sometimes been added to many an arsenal of excuses for non-action by those who have never even read this Melville story--i.e., the predilecton to abstain, sit on the fence and let others make the decisions, do the hard work, etc. Bartleby wasn't about cowardice or arrogance, and though fictional, he had his real-life counterparts in preferring not to eat, resulting in death--never mind the reason: out of compassion for others (Simone Weil), political protest (Bobby Sands) or despair (writer Jim Thompson).
Another one on my must-get list is the "never-before published" essays of Mark Twain, in Who is Mark Twain?, also published this past Spring.
You can read page-long samples of the 55 essays and stories contained in this book by clicking here.
To hear John Lithgow reading Twain's "Whenever I am About to Publish a Book", check out Flash Rosenberg's animation of a hand with a pencil sketching Twain's 'characters' as Lithgow reads: here. (The full text can be found here.)
My list of Must-Gets is growing (groan). Add to that Henry Petroski's biography of The Pencil, Carlos Ruiz Zafón's The Shadow of the Wind, and Maryanne Wolf's Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. And if I hit the used book stores in Harvard, Porter and Davis Square--whoa, better bring a second suitcase!
I'm dreaming, of course. I may actually have neither the time nor the funds to add to my book wish-list this time. If I had to pick just one, though, which one would it be? Argghhhhhhhh. Okay, which TWO, then? :)