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Bartleby, the Scrivener
by Herman Melville

A Story of Wall Street by Herman Melville. Imagine a new guy showing up for a job at your office, excelling at his work and generally keeping to himself. One day you ask him to lend you his stapler and he replies, "I would prefer not to." A few weeks later you ask if he wouldn't mind reviewing a PowerPoint before you meet with some clients, since he's a good proofreader. "I would prefer not to," he replies. In fact, he prefers not to do anything, until you fire him, and then he replies that he'd rather not leave his desk. Transpose this to a 19th-century copyist's office (back when dozens of human hands did the work of a single copy machine), and you have the absurd mechanics of Bartleby. Ah, Bartleby. The first time I read this story I was a high school senior who thought civil disobedience was something Indian pacifists and Quakers did. Ten years later, as I reread it on the subway ride home on Friday, surrounded by hordes of corporate drones frowning into their smart phones, it clicked. How could Bartleby just disengage like that? Not just how dare he, but what enabled him? What exactly was he refusing? And what would happen if I practiced that refrain? Who it's for: fans of "Office Space" [my nephew John's favorite film] anyone with a parasitic co-worker, anyone tuned in to the absurdity of modern life, anyone with moral qualms about the rat race, anyone who would feel solace or perhaps vindication at watching a puny nobody with neat handwriting tell the world to shove off.

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