Don’t Be A Bartleby

May 19 2014
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Taylor M. Polites is the author of The Rebel Wife, an engrossing novel about a resilient heroine in the post-Civil War South. Before he was a novelist, Polites spent years in the labyrinth of Wall Street. We at Off the Shelf have borrowed a great piece he wrote for about how that experience reminded him of one of our favorite books of all time, Herman Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener, a book that should be read by office dwellers everywhere.

I spent thirteen years at a “premier global investment bank,” toiling like Melville’s Bartleby (until I, too, preferred not to) among partnership agreements, K-1 tax forms, and annual reports. I knew many who were like the dead-eyed Bartleby and his fractious, grumbling co-scriveners, Nippers and Turkey. I was one of them myself. In Melville’s story, the men were legal copyists, endlessly laboring with pen and ink to produce contracts in quintuplicate. Today’s business culture demands even deeper immersion, and I lost more than a few evenings and weekends to the machine. Others had it worse, pulling all-nighters, even coming in from family funerals and marital crises or while suffering from fevers, chills, and bronchial effusions. Bartleby lived at his office, sleeping on his boss’s sofa, washing at his desk, living off ginger cakes. No wonder he would stand staring blindly out of a window into a neighboring brick wall. The vista from my cube included rows of other fluorescent-lit cubes and a glass-walled conference room, which looked across the narrow streets of Lower Manhattan into other offices where workers toiled at their computers under similar fluorescent lights. The endless cycle of fundraising, investing, and harvesting was quantified in regular installments by herds of lawyers and accountants who tabulated results to show the worth of what we were all doing.

The machine can eat people like it eats profits. So my advice is to not let it. Love finance, if that is your passion. But make space for those other things that give you breath, passion, and interest. Something with nothing to do with EBITDA or P/E ratios. Read. Write. Knit. Garden. Paint. Cook. Create. Make things. Feed all your interests. Don’t be a Bartleby.

For more great business stories and book recommendations visit

Bartleby the Scrivener
Herman Melville

Academics hail it as the beginning of modernism, but to readers around the world—even those daunted by Moby-Dick—Bartleby the Scrivener is simply one of the most absorbing and moving novellas ever. Set in the mid-19th century on New York City’s Wall Street, it was also, perhaps, Herman Melville’s most prescient story: what if a young man caught up in the rat race of commerce finally just said, “I would prefer not to”? The tale is one of the final works of fiction published by Melville before, slipping into despair over the continuing critical dismissal of his work after Moby-Dick, he abandoned publishing fiction. The work is presented here exactly as it was originally published in Putnam’s magazine—to, sadly, critical disdain.

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Don’t Be A Bartleby

By Taylor Polites | May 19, 2014


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