In this very attitude did I sit when I called to him, rapidly stating what it was I wanted him to do—namely, to examine a small paper with me. Imagine my surprise, nay, my consternation, when without moving from his privacy, Bartleby in a singularly mild, firm voice, replied, “I would prefer not to.”
I would prefer not to.
The phrase has a haunting quality to it. It lacks complete definition, like a ghost. It reverberates from another era, from a mode of thinking that is not dependent on modern logic or visual evidence. And like a ghost it appears from time to time, unannounced, 160 years after it was written. A woman wore it on a t-shirt at AWP. Mary Ruefle used it to describe Emily Dickinson’s life in her book Madness, Rack and Honey. It came back to me while writing my satirical novel, and I paraphrased it to describe the budding revelation in a character who had always shied away from confrontation (After a life of preferring not to…).
“I would prefer not to” may be the greatest single line in literature. It seems so profound, yet is so vague as to mean a thousand different things, which may explain why it persists. The statement and Melville’s story (which by the way achieved little note when it was first published) have been studied and debated by hundreds of scholars, so I won’t go into the various theories here.
I like the idea of preferring, of balancing the pluses and minuses inherent in a decision to come to the best possible course of action.
I like even more the idea of preferring not to, to weigh all the factors and decide that no, it’s not worth complying with what’s been suggested or commanded. It has an existential feel to it, a thoughtful rumination that connects even the most inconsequential choice to our larger lives. It means, in one sense, freedom from unnecessary compromise, or from buying into the practices and beliefs of a group, the fitting-in behavior by which many people live. It can also mean despair, the decision to opt out, completely, from the culture in which we find ourselves, as Bartleby did (and some critics believe Melville wanted to).
It seems we don’t get to prefer not to anymore. Our government and corporate overlords prefer (or is that insist?) we follow the rules they have laid out for us, conform to their dictates about how we should live and what we should want. Prefer not to pay your taxes? Prefer not to have your online activities tracked? Every transaction, every interaction, every preference you reveal is now recorded, so it’s pretty hard to avoid becoming part of the system. Even my weekly screed is stored in a server somewhere, for posterity, or maybe evidence. I doubt Melville could have known how much the world would have changed in the century and a half since he wrote Bartleby, but I’m sure he suspected its nature would remain essentially the same. His phrase has as much meaning today as it did then.
I could go on, but I would prefer not to. Instead, let me ask what your choice is for the greatest line in literature…
 You’re welcome