Reading List #1

2012: The Good Soldier by Ford Maddox Ford

2011: The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

2010: Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error by Emile Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie

2009: From Dawn to Decadence by Jacques Barzun

2008: 2666 by Roberto Bolaño

2007: The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

2006: In Watermelon Sugar by Richard Brautigan

2005: Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

2004: If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino

2003: A Personal Matter by Kenzaburo Oe

2002: A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

2001: Please Kill Me by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain

2000: Idoru by William Gibson

1999: The Sailor who Fell from Grace with the Sea by Yukio Mishima

1998: The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

1997: Catch 22 by Joseph Heller

1996: The Norton Anthology of English Literature Vol.  2,  Second Edition

1995: The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

1994: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs by David Norman

1993: The Way Things Work by David Macaulay

1992: The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

1991: D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths by Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire

1990: The Abominable Snowman by Barbara Antonopulos

1989: O, the Places You’ll Go by Dr. Seuss

1989: Tassel’s Mission by Susan Thompson-Hoffman

1987: Hot Air Henry by Mary Calhoun

1986: Cross-Country Cat by Mary Calhoun

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Borges on “Bartleby the Scrivener”

In 1944, Jorge Luis Borges wrote a short introduction to Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener.” Just a few hundred words long, this little essay should not be overshadowed by the vast amount of Melville scholarship that has appeared before and since then. Borges asserts, rightly so, that “Bartleby” prefigures certain developments in the art of fiction, namely the psychological tale, exemplars of which can be found in the work of Joseph Conrad and Franz Kafka among others

Given his sensitive reading of Melville, it is strange then that Borges would place blame entirely on Bartleby for the gloom and disorder that falls on the law office. He writes, “Bartleby’s candid nihilism contaminates his companions and even the stolid gentleman who tells his tale and endorses his imaginary tasks.” True to a point—but the nihilism is there already, before Bartleby even enters the story. His fellow scriveners Nippers and Turkey, with their strange names, sullen temperaments, and erratic work habits, are functional only in comparison to him. And then there is the sarcophagal office, where the lawyer does his vague business. Consider this passage, which takes place as Bartleby is newly installed there:

I resolved to assign Bartleby a corner by the folding doors, but on my side of them, so as to have this quiet man within easy call, in case any trifling thing was to be done. I placed his desk close up to a small side window in that part of the room, a window which originally had afforded a lateral view of certain grimy back yards and bricks, but which, owing to subsequent erections, commanded at present no view at all, though it gave some light. Within three feet of the panes was wall, and the light came down from far above, between two lofty buildings, as from a very small opening in a dome. Still further to a satisfactory arrangement, I procured a high green folding screen, which might entirely isolate Bartleby from my sight, though not remove him from my voice.

Bartleby’s refusal to do his copying forms as a natural corollary to the environment in which he works. Such a gentle but weak-minded man has no hope within the tomblike silence of that office. The sympathy that Bartleby elicits from the lawyer is not an endorsement of his behavior but the pangs of an insulated but otherwise healthy conscience. He recognizes where the corruption comes from—not from the scrivener, who is harmless and cannot even understand his own actions. The corruption is present as a natural quality of the environment. It stems from the prisons, workhouses, and ill kept offices that swallow the unlucky scrivener whole.