Bartleby sure was strange… but so was his employer.

Note: this post assumes the reader has already read the story. If you haven’t read it, take 45 minutes or so on your lunch hour some day and add it to your collection…

I re-read Melville’s short story, “Bartleby the Scrivener: A Tale of Wall Street,” yesterday. Most people probably find the story memorable simply because of the uniquely strange title character. I mean really, how does one get away with staying on in a job after repeatedly replying “I would prefer not to” to any request to do something?

Part of what’s remarkable to me about the story, though, is the character of his boss, the narrator of the story. He admits to being somewhat “disarmed” by Bartleby’s passive resistance via steadfast though quiet and polite refusals and reacts with pity and charity to the man, rather than with anger and violence – as many others certainly would. Indeed, at each instance of increasing non-compliance or insubordination, the boss simply retreats and re-evaluates his stance regarding poor Bartleby.

His boss is also self delusional. At one point, after he has communicated his latest “ultimatum” to Bartleby. He convinces himself what a fine job he did of it, and by the time he had walked home was confident that, when he arrived at the office the next day, Bartleby would be gone. However, in the morning he realizes his mistake as he has “slept off the fumes of vanity” (as Melville says; I love that description) and finds Bartleby still haunting his offices.

The narrator’s perplexity at how to deal with Bartleby – now a “millstone around his neck” – leads him to eventually relocate his offices to another building. This “solves” the boss’s problem, but not the problem of Bartleby himself, who continues hanging around the old building, so much to the dismay of the new tenants that they at last have him arrested and taken away.

Our narrator still feels pity for Bartleby and visits him in jail, offering to help him and even ‘bribing’ the cook/commissary man in order to make sure his charge is well fed. Why does the narrator of this story react to Bartleby the way he does? I know countless analyses of this story have been written or contemplated, but I naturally haven’t had the time yet to read them all.

There was one interesting interpretation I did read, however. It is that the story is biographical, and that Bartleby represents Melville. This rings true in one important way: Melville had gained much success with is earlier novels, Typee and Omoo, written more for mass consumption, but his Moby Dick (written more in the contemplative style he would “prefer to” write) was snubbed by critics and readers alike. This coincides with Bartleby’s profession as a scrivener (essentially a human copy machine). People wanted Melville to simply copy the formula of his early successful books even though he “would prefer not to.” This may be why at one point in the story, Bartleby informs the narrator that he has decided to stop copying altogether (his earlier refusals are for other tasks). I find this interpretation interesting.

What about you? Have you read this famous story? I’m particularly interested in anyone’s thoughts who read it for a literature class or the like. What were the interpretations there?

Lending eBooks …. And yet another book club

I just remembered that I had “promised” to let my readers know about the success or failure I experienced in lending my copy of an eBook to a fellow Nook owner. The short version: it was a piece of cake. One only needs to set up the “lendee” on one’s nook as a ‘friend’ including the email address. Once this is done, when you have selected a book from your library, you press ‘other options’ and “lend” is right there. The other user receives an email alerting them that the book has been offered to them, and they accept or decline. There are still, as I mentioned earlier, the draconian regulations of only being able to lend a book once, and the person being lent the book only has it for fourteen days. I hope these are eased at some point, but I won’t hold my breath.

In another “development” locally, there is another meeting of the “Great Books” discussion group tomorrow night at a local library. This is the group I found out about when visiting the Center for Inquiry downtown. (a somewhat brainy group of skeptics, free thinkers, etc). This month’s book (actually a long-ish short story) is Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, which I have already read a couple times, so I’m thinking about crashing this meeting. (I guess I cant technically “crash” it since they did put me on their email list at my request a while back). I almost feel, however, that I may be getting involved in too many things like this and as a result will not leave myself enough time to read books of my own choosing, and that is certainly something “I would prefer not to” do…

Progress Report

Here it is over halfway though October already, and I am pretty much on pace to get all my “required reading” done. I’ve finished Mockingjay and the collection of H.G. Wells short stories. I’ve got about ten short stories to go in Welcome to the Monkey House (Kurt Vonnegut). And am now also about 25% into Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain.

The latter book is proving to be slow going for me. “It’s not my fault,” though, as I was literally 50+ pages into the book before any real action occurred. Frazier is wonderful (as he also was in the book, Thirteen Moons, which my book club read a couple years ago) at prose that is descriptive of the natural world, and I am enjoying this side of the book. The flow of book, however, is rather confounding to the reader. We keep switching back and forth between the main characters, Inman and Ada, but within their stories are several flashbacks and sometimes flashbacks within flashbacks. It’s difficult to keep the “target” in view sometimes, but I have managed to stay with it thus far – albeit at the cost of very slow reading (this is a two minutes per page book for me so far; I hate slogging through at that pace). Anyway, enough whining. I’m hoping to finish it and the Vonnegut short story collection by the end of this coming weekend, which will leave me time to focus the rest of the month on a “new discovery.”

Next up for me (and I confess I read about thirty pages into it this past weekend when I got frustrated with my progress toward Cold Mountain) is Thomas Hardy’s Two on a Tower. Somehow, knowledge of this book’s existence had escaped me until recently – and I count myself a Thomas Hardy fan – when I learned of it via Chris’s great blog, ProSe (Chris is another of that too rare species: the male book blogger).  His review of Two on a Tower can be found here.  I was able to download it for free to my Nook and it hasn’t disappointed in the early going. Hardy’s Return of the Native and Jude the Obscure are both among my favorite classics, with Tess of the d’Urbervilles earning honorable mention” as well. I’m really looking forward to reading the rest of Two on a Tower.

“It was the narcotic of generalship. It was the essence of war.” Kurt Vonnegut’s short story, “All the King’s Horses”

I just finished this great little short story by Kurt Vonnegut. An American military plane, transporting a Colonel Kelly and his family and various other personnel, is blown off course and crash lands “somewhere in Asia” where the pilot and passengers (sixteen people in all – a number with unfortunate consequences) are taken prisoner by a local communist leader, Pi Ying. I was wondering where the story would go, and then was shocked to discover that Pi Ying plans to force the American Colonel to contest a game of chess with him, using the sixteen prisoners as live chess pieces! Of course, at stake in the game are the lives of the prisoners.

Now my interest was piqued, as I have spent more than 20 years of my life as a regular participant in chess tournaments, mostly in Indiana, but also in many other locations around the country and even once in Bermuda. I “retired” in 2005, but still follow news of the game via several excellent chess blogs and news websites. So, I was looking forward to finding out how the game was described and depicted.

Also, in his mental preparation for the game, Colonel Kelly finds a strange calm overtaking him, just as it habitually did in real battle. This is where the quotation in the title of the post comes from. This calm detachment is what allows him – and other military leaders – to function effectively amid the “insanity” of war. This called to mind some of my Civil War reading of this year, like the Stonewall Jackson biography, Killer Angels, and The Red Badge of Courage. Voonegut describes Kelly as recognizing “the eerie calm – an old wartime friend- that left only the cold machinery of his wits and senses alive.” (this is the ‘narcotic of generalship’ in the quotation above). A probably overlong review follows, but I’d suggest investing 20 minutes in reading this story before I “ruin it” for you…

Anyway, back to the game *Spoiler Alert* (and *Nerd Alert!*): After some discussion on who will be the king’s pawn (accurately described as one of the more hazardous outposts) the game begins with Kelly’s wife taking the role of queen and his twin sons as the white knights. Our hero begins the game in normal fashion with “pawn to king four” (e4 in modern chess notation) and his captor replies with pawn to queen four, putting the pawns into conflict with each other. (this opening is known today as the Scandinavian Defense, or in some quarters the “Center Counter Game.” It’s a viable reply to pawn to king four, but not the most popular one today. Kelly can either take the black pawn or push forward with his king’s pawn OR simply defend the pawn, which he is described as doing by pushing a pawn up one square. This latter is what he does, although only two moves accomplish this: 2. d3 or 2. f3, both of which are NEVER played at the serious level – even though Kelly has described himself earlier in the story as ‘above average.’

Pi Ying, bloodthirsty for action decides to trade pawns and captures Kelly’s king pawn (captured “live” pieces are immediately taken away and shot). The game goes on and Kelly finds himself in a losing position, realizing the only way to divert his opponent’s forthcoming coup de grace is to sacrifice one of his own pieces – in this case a knight i.e., one of his twin sons. Realizing that NOT doing so will result in all of their deaths, he proceeds with the plan. Pi Ying laughs and taunts Kelly for his oversight, while Kelly tries to “sell it” with some forehead-slapping type histrionics: “Oh, my God! What have I done?” etc. Pi Ying accepts the sacrifice, at which point his consort, disgusted by Ying’s sadism, stabs him to death. At this point, Ying’s advisor, a Russian Major Barzov (unaware of the consequences of Ying’s having accepted the sacrifice) takes the reins of the game and is quickly defeated.

So, on the chess front, I’d have to say the story isn’t too accurate. No good player would play as Kelly does, and Ying once advises a soldier chosen to be a bishop that it is worth “a knight and a pawn.” Not so. A bishop IS worth slightly more than a knight, but by no means a whole pawn’s worth. Vonnegut also says that “a game of chess can very rarely be won – any more than a battle can be won – without sacrifices.” This isn’t quite true either. I knew many players who “made a living” by only not making serious mistakes and letting their opponents simply “beat themselves.” Perhaps it is true, however, in games between strong players of similar strength.

The theme of the story is also not unique (do you suppose J.K. Rowling was familiar with this story when she describes a live game of Wizard’s Chess in one of the Harry Potter books? Wasn’t it Ron Weasley who says, “You have to sacrifice me, Harry! It’s the only way!”) I also remember a tv show or movie with a similar theme: commandant of a POW camp plays the leader of the prisoners, etc. There was even a great TRUE story in an issue of Chess Life magazine (Yes, there really is a magazine with that name!) about a chess playing relationship of an American POW in the Pacific theater and his chess-playing Japanese commandant. I’ll do some research and try to find that and maybe update later.

Below: Starting position of the Scandinavian Defense:

Back from the City of Sleep – Kipling’s short story, “The Brushwood Boy”

Reading so many short stories lately has motivated me to share with you a recommendation… Rudyard Kipling’s story “The Brushwood Boy” is one of my all-time favorites. It’s simply magical. The hero of the story, over the years, has crafted a kind of dream landscape that he visits over and over in his slumbers. He assumes he alone knows of this dream world, but finds out otherwise. I won’t include any other spoilers here ’cause I’m hoping you’ll take the half hour or so to read it for yourself. (you can find it free online in many places).

It includes the following beautiful verse/song:

Over the edge of the purple down,
Where the single lamplight gleams,
Know ye the road to the Merciful Town
That is hard by the Sea of Dreams-
Where the poor may lay their wrongs away,
And the sick may forget to weep?
But we – pity us! Oh, pity us!
We wakeful; ah, pity us! –
We must go back with Policeman Day –
Back from the City of Sleep!

Weary they turn from the scroll and crown,
Fetter and prayer and plough
They that go up to the Merciful Town,
For her gates are closing now.
It is their right in the Baths of Night
Body and soul to steep
But we – pity us! ah, pity us!
We wakeful; oh, pity us! –
We must go back with Policeman Day –
Back from the City of Sleep!

Over the edge of the purple down,
Ere the tender dreams begin,
Look – we may look – at the Merciful Town,
But we may not enter in !
Outcasts all, from her guarded wall
Back to our watch we creep:
We – pity us! ah, pity us!
We wakeful; oh, pity us! –
We that go back with Policeman Day –
Back from the City of Sleep

Maybe I’m reminded of this today because I’m verrrry sleepy after an insomniacal night and am thinking of the comfort that Georgie’s dream world provided…

Below: an illustration (by F.H. Townsend) from the 1899 publication of the story.

Just Finished: “The Stolen Bacillus and Other Incidents” by H.G. Wells

I’ve spent a rather pleasant afternoon with two great writers – H.G. Wells and Kurt Vonnegut. As coincidence would have it, my two “main” book clubs are reading short story collections this month. I had already started the H.G. Wells collection several days ago, and today I was kind of alternating between the two, finishing the last five Wells stories and reading the first four of Vonnegut’s collection, “Welcome to the Monkey House.”

I think Wells is a splendid writer, and went through a “Wells Phase” in the late 90s, reading “tons” of work by him. Many of the stories in this book I had read before, in a used paperback collection (one of those non-standard sized oddities that wreak havoc with the symmetry of one’s bookshelves), but there were a few unknown nuggets for me here as well.

I was struck once again by Wells’s capacity for placing ordinary people – or maybe more accurately, people with ordinary points of view – in extraordinary situations, and seeing where that takes them. He also has a great skill, in my opinion, in giving brief physical descriptions of characters which convey a whole lot of information – a handy talent in a short story writer I suppose. The engineer in the story “Lord of the Dynamos” comes to mind as an example.

Which stories were my favorites? that’s a tough one. Of the fifteen stories in the book, I’ll pick four: “In the Avu Observatory,” “Aepyornis Island,” (and a shiny nickel prize to the first reader who can tell me how to pronounce that!) “The Lord of the Dynamos,” and “The Diamond Maker.” I’ve already commented on “The Remarkable Case of Davidson’s Eyes,” which is also quite good. There were only a couple that I didn’t like: “Triumph of a Taxidermist” and “The Temptation of Harringjay.”

My book club is discussing these stories in a couple weeks and I’ll probably share some of the others’ impressions here later.

Below: Aepyornis Maximus. This was a real creature (!) though extinct. I had no idea!

How fast can you read?

I feel like I’m a “slow” reader, which is annoying enough when you simply “do the math” and figure out how many more books you could read if you, say, increased your reading speed by twenty percent? 50 books in a year (roughly the pace I’m on this year) becomes 60, and – depending on what those extra ten books are – think of what I could be missing!

Of course, reading speed depends a lot on what you’re reading. Non-fiction is slower than fiction, “classic” fiction or literature is slower than modern fiction, etc. But, even on the “easier” reads, I still feel like I’m slow: e.g., I just finished the Hunger Games trilogy, which is quite a page turner and yet I probably averaged only 45 pages an hour. Very disappointing. Maybe it’s poor concentration.

One of my friends in my book club reads a prodigious amount, and I find this very annoying 🙂 Earlier this year, after I had discovered “The girl with the Dragon Tattoo…” books and was on the final one, I told her about them, and she ended up reading all three books before I even finished the one I was on. Then, just this past week, I told her about the Hunger Games series ( where I was on book three of the trilogy) and just between Thursday night and Sunday afternoon she had almost completed them all as well. It was only by my eschewing watching NFL in the late afternoon that I was able to prevent a repeat of “The Girl With…Reading Incident” 🙂

I think it was Woody Allen that said, “I took a speed reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.” Of course, comedy is his profession, but that’s kind of how I’d imagine speed readers to comprehend their books.

All kidding aside, though, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to read a little faster without losing any comprehension in the deal? That’s kind of a Holy Grail for me. Has anyone out there successfully increased their reading speed? Has anyone tried any of those “gimmick” (you can tell I’m a skeptic) books or courses that allegedly increase your speed? I imagine just reading more and more might make one a little bit faster, but I’m not sure that I’ve noted that on a personal level, and this has been one of my most active reading years. So… How fast do YOU read? Go ahead, make me feel worse. 🙂

The Remarkable Case of Davidson’s Eyes

This short story is another tidbit from H.G. Wells’s collection, “The Stolen Bacillus and Other Incidents.” It is one of my favorites and showcases the stupendous imagination of this famous author. I’ve been pondering about imagination lately, as I was also quite impressed with its being on vivid display in Suzanne Collins’s “Hunger Games Trilogy,” and was reminded again at the Kurt Vonnegut Book Club meeting on September 30th, where several club members marveled at Vonnegut’s “imagination” and “How did he come up with that?” sort of questions. At first I (internally, anyway) dismissed this as a case of the non-artist (as in me or my colleagues in the book club) not easily understanding the artist. I still believe that is largely true, because such things “might never occur to us” as non-artists. We often need, I think, things to be “closer together” before we can make a connection. It’s as though the artist has stronger “pattern recognition” muscles than the rest of us. He can see similarities that the rest of us cannot. The neat thing is, once he trail blazes those connections for us, we usually – or at least often – have an “oh, yeah..” moment as realization dawns.

The premise/setting of this story starts with an accident in a lab resulting in a temporary experience of a sensory trans- or dis-location: the sight of the unfortunate Davidson is mapped to a point the other side of the globe. Wells speculates that Davidson’s condition was brought on by accidentally “stooping between the poles of some big electromagnet” and had “some extraordinary twist given to his retinal elements.” Other curious symptoms of his affliction are that he can hear and feel those around him in the “real world”, even though he sees another world, which is apparently on the other side of the globe since when it is daylight where his physical body is, it is nighttime “wherever his eyes are” and vice-versa. Also, as he gains or loses altitude in his local landscape, he does the same wherever his eyes are, even going underwater at one point. Another odd twist is that Davidson cannot taste tobacco as he smokes, and our narrator comments that now neither can he, unless he can see the smoke(!)

An interesting little story, written in 1895, no less. Oh, and I even saw somewhere on-line that some view this as one of the earliest descriptions of “remote viewing” – a popular pseudo-scientific phenomenon.

H.G. Wells

Nook “user group” meeting

(written 10/6/10, 5:45pm)
I’m sitting here at Barnes and Noble where there will allegedly be a kind of a Nook user group meeting. I’ve been told they have them the first and third Wednesday of each month. I want to learn more about sharing books since a coworker of mine now has a Nook too, and we have a few candidates in our libraries for which we’d like to test this process out.

I’m also a little curious about synchronizing my various readers I.e., I now have my actual Nook, the Nook app on my iPhone – which I barely use – and my Nook app on my iPad – which I use more than anything now. The big question for me is: if I highlighted passages and made notes on the iPad app (where it is soooo easy), do those get synchronized when I log in to B& so that if I later open the books on my actual nook, will I still get to see my highlights and notes(?)

I’m going to pause here and continue later since it’s almost the appointed time…

(written 10/8/10 7:15am)
Well, I did end up speaking with one of the in-store experts for awhile. I was the only one there at the scheduled start time (although another user did show up about 6:15 just as I was running out of the questions I had wanted to ask). The expert was also an iPad owner and, like me, did most of his nook reading via the Nook app for the iPhone, so that was convenient.

Re: Sharing (lending) e-books:
You can still only lend a book only one time. I asked if he saw that rule ever changing in the future and he was non-committal but offered “it’s possible” but there were no current plans to change that. Once offered to lend, the fellow Nook user you lend it to had seven days to “accept” it. Once they accept it, it transfers to their account for a period of two weeks. During this time it will not show up in the “my library” screen of the Nook/Nook app. I still haven’t tried this yet, but probably will in the next few weeks. I will report back my success or failure on this front. Note: not all the books one buys via the Nook are “lendable” either. E.g., maybe 30% or so of my e-library is.

Re synchronizing highlights & notes: the answers here were disappointing but not surprising. When I download a purchased book to my iPad, that is a separate copy and is not synchronized with the “master copy” of the book on my B&N account. Like many, I have a fear of losing data at some point – though not quite the paranoia of some others in this regard. But my iPad is backed up on my home computer, and maybe someday the b&n account will let you save the highlights there as well.

Re one other item that I haven’t mentioned before: To “turn the pages” while reading the Nook, one “clicks” or presses the side panel of the device. Well, after reading a few thousand pages on my Nook, these side panels began to develop thin cracks where this “pressing” takes place. (I should also mention that it is possible to turn pages by “swiping” the small touch screen from right to left, but it seems easier to me to just click the side of the device) Anyway, he said this was a “known problem” and that if I contact Nook support they will replace my device. This is good to know. And I should say that it still works fine, it’s just that its appearance is slightly marred by these little cracks on the side.

Any other Nook users out there that have experienced this problem?

Below: the Nook reader (no, those are not my hands in the picture 🙂 ) and the Nook app for iPad:

“Through a Window” by H.G. Wells

I just read this short story last night. Not that much to it, really, but it did set me thinking. The setting is that of a man convalescing from an injury (the nature of which is not specified in the story, other than he hasn’t the use of his legs) who spends his waking hours looking out of a large window with a view of a close by river. Over just a few days, he gains “an intimate knowledge” of the river and its ‘regular customers,’ both boats and people.

One day, he has some ‘excitement, as he observes the flight (and subsequent pursuit) of an escaped slave or servant (a “Malay” he suspects). The unfortunate fugitive had apparently gone mad and went on a kree (a kind of bladed weapon) wielding spree of violence. Not surprisingly, the Malay finds his way to our side of the river and, though wounded, manages to gain access through the very window in the title of the story, when our hero “finishes him off.”

Where this story resonated with me was in the early part, as our main character begins to gain his “intimate knowledge” of the river. He even comments that one of the hands on one of the regular boats ‘must not be feeling well today’ by observing how he carries himself. This heightened sense and skill of observation reminded me of when my retired Granddad used to come visit us in Indianapolis (this was after the death of my Grandmother and before he remarried). He enjoyed sitting on our front porch and observing all the goings on of the street we lived on. I remember being impressed that, in seemingly just a few days of observation, he discovered habits and routines that we “who lived there all the time” had never bothered to notice. The steps of the mailman, his route around fences and yards, when certain dogs would notice and react to his presence, the different personalities of the squirrels who called our trees and yard home, school bus stops and who got off at each one, and on and on.

My Granddad came from the mountains of West Virginia and was already known (to me) as a keen observer of the natural world. He seemed to know every creature and plant in those mountains and even, one time when I told him what my high school biology teacher had told me about a certain snake’s behavior that was contrary to what Granddad himself had observed – even laughing off what I said my Granddad had seen – replied to me “Well, you tell him he’s a damned liar!”

Well, I see I’ve once again gotten off the subject, but the fact is – if one would only focus one’s attention – it’s amazing what type of things one could notice that had perviously been hidden from view…

Photo of a young H.G. Wells:

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