To accompany Andrew Kahn’s annotations of “Bartleby,” we wanted to present the story in audiobook format. Slate deputy editor John Swansburg talked me into reading it.
I had read “Bartleby” before, of course—once in high school (when we talked about the unreliable narrator) and once in graduate school (when we talked about the title character’s refusal as an act of political resistance). It had flattened itself out in my memory, as almost everything does. It’s a story with a refrain: a part that repeats and comes to stand for the whole. Yeah, Bartleby, the guy who would prefer not to.
But when you read the text out loud, as I did one recent evening in Slate’s Studio B, that’s not what stands out. The words you’re reading are mostly the words of Bartleby’s boss, the lawyer. We never learn his name. He’s pompous and silly and he loves the sound of his own voice. But then he runs up against Bartleby, the blank mystery at the story’s heart, with his absolute refusal to participate in the web of cause and effect that makes narrative possible. The drama of the story is in this peaceful man’s confrontation with that nullity. When you read Melville’s story out loud you inhabit him, you engage in that confrontation yourself, and like him you come away reeling. –Gabriel Roth, Slate Plus editorial director