January 13, 2011


Monday is my day to grocery shop. Tuesday and Thursday, I take my walk in the park. I consider these events similar because they are the times when I do my best thinking. Browsing supermarket aisles or walking a tree lined path, I allow my mind wander wherever it likes. People around me are absorbed in their tasks, so I can observe their behavior without being noticed.  

Last Monday, I ran into a friend while shopping. We chatted briefly, but before we parted, she asked if I would be walking in the park the next day. I told her I would be and she asked if she could join me. Naturally, I welcomed her, but as I walked away, I was of two minds. I enjoy her company. She’s a story teller who makes me laugh or leaves me thoughtful depending on what she has to say. Over a steaming cup of coffee, I can think of few who entertain me more. But my walks are times for reflection not interaction and I wished I’d had the courage to answer her request with “I prefer not to.”

“I prefer not to,” is a line made famous in Herman Melville’s short story, “Bartleby, The Scrivener.” It’s the tale of a businessman in the 1800’s who hires a scrivener to copy legal documents. The employee, though reclusive, has a fine, clear hand for the job but, over time, he produces less and less work. Eventually, the employer presses Bartleby to be more productive. The reply is, “I prefer not to.”  In time, Bartleby slows down to such a degree that his employer, though kind hearted, is forced to fire him. But Bartleby does not leave. He continues to appear at his desk each morning, copying in a slow hand. The now “former” employer asks him to go away but Bartleby replies, “I prefer not to.” Finally, the man moves to a different establishment to be rid of Bartleby. When the new occupant of those former premises arrives, he finds Bartleby working at his desk. The man asks him to remove himself, but Bartleby answers, “I prefer not to.”  In the end, the police are called and Bartleby is dragged off to prison. Remorseful, his former employer visits him and offers help him change his circumstance, but the answer remains, ‘I prefer not to.”  Before the man leaves, he gives the jailer sufficient money to supply Bartleby with good food. Several days later, however, the scrivener dies starvation. When presented with meals his reply was always, “I prefer not to.”

It’s a strange story with a strange ending and much has been written to explain this bizarre character. I think he’s troubling because a bit of Bartleby resides in most of us — that rebel segment of ourselves that prefers not to fit in, not to be correct or cordial. Sociability, however, is engrained in our natures and it takes a good deal of courage to tell someone you like, “I prefer not to.”   Bartleby had that courage. He took his preference to extremes, of course. On the other hand, if we don’t preserve a little of ourselves for ourselves, we are apt get lost, which is a form of dying.