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Paul Giamatti discusses Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street” in live online discussion

Who: Paul Giamatti, Andrew Delbanco
What: Audio reading and live Q&A
Where: 92Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center online
When: Thursday, December 3, $15, 7:00
Why: It’s one of the most famous sentences in the history of American literature, consisting of five simple words: “I would prefer not to.” Initially published anonymously in Putnam’s magazine in November and December 1853 and then slightly adapted for his 1856 collection The Piazza Tales, Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street” features a title character who just decides one day to not follow orders, to not do what he is asked at his job as a legal copyist. It’s a gentle yet bold declaration, if not quite definitive, but one that Bartleby sets his mind to. As Melville writes:

Ere introducing the scrivener, as he first appeared to me, it is fit I make some mention of myself, my employées, my business, my chambers, and general surroundings; because some such description is indispensable to an adequate understanding of the chief character about to be presented.

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 sat awhile in perfect silence, rallying my stunned faculties. Immediately it occurred to me that my ears had deceived me, or Bartleby had entirely misunderstood my meaning. I repeated my request in the clearest tone I could assume. But in quite as clear a one came the previous reply, “I would prefer not to.”

“Prefer not to,” echoed I, rising in high excitement, and crossing the room with a stride. “What do you mean? Are you moon-struck? I want you to help me compare this sheet here — take it,” and I thrust it towards him.

“I would prefer not to,” said he.

I looked at him steadfastly. His face was leanly composed; his gray eye dimly calm. Not a wrinkle of agitation rippled him. Had there been the least uneasiness, anger, impatience or impertinence in his manner; in other words, had there been any thing ordinarily human about him, doubtless I should have violently dismissed him from the premises. But as it was, I should have as soon thought of turning my pale plaster-of-paris bust of Cicero out of doors. I stood gazing at him awhile, as he went on with his own writing, and then reseated myself at my desk. This is very strange, thought I. What had one best do? But my business hurried me. I concluded to forget the matter for the present, reserving it for my future leisure.

In conjunction with his outstanding reading of the short story for 92Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center, which is available here, on December 3 at 7:00, Emmy-winning, Oscar-nominated actor Paul Giamatti will take part in a live discussion with Columbia University professor Andrew Delbanco, author of the 2005 biography Melville: His World and Work, focusing on “Bartleby.” The New Haven-born, Brooklyn Heights-based Giamatti has a unique understanding of finance, Wall Street, and the law, having appeared in such films and series as Too Big to Fail, John Adams, and Billions. “It’s one of my favorite short stories by one of my favorite writers, so I was particularly gratified to be able to read it out loud. I’ve always wanted to,” Melville fan Giamatti said in a statement. “It’s a wonderful story — a very strange but sad story — but also funny. I think it’s very funny.” Admission to the talk and access to the ninety-minute reading is $15.

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