For me, the experience of working collaboratively to create an audiobook of Bartleby the Scrivener, a Story of Wall Street by Herman Melville was an instructive exercise in learning how to negotiate a collaborative project. I found it oftentimes a painful exercise because I had to step out of my comfort zone and muster up enthusiasm for a handling of Bartleby which failed to convince me, namely, the translating of text to speech by automated voice. My inclination was to craft a warm storyteller’s space where we would do our best to translate into auditory terms the beautifully rich, funny and tragic story of Bartleby, but our process was a democratic one so I gracefully set my old-fashioned ideas aside.
After a first discussion of what we could do, Lauren created a Google Doc summarizing our brainstormed ideas and division of labor. I wanted different (human!) readers and sound effects. Everyone else wanted automated voices, an idea that I liked at first but came to see as an oversimplification of the 19th century urban landscape as a totally dehumanized space transformed by the capitalist machine. Maybe this would have worked better for George Orwell’s 1984; and maybe it would have worked better if we had had more time to humanize the machine by annotating our audiobook with human voices, chirping birds, music and other sounds.
My first task was to choose a fifteen-minute sample segment of the audiobook to present our project with, and I chose the part where Bartleby first says that he prefers not to do what the lawyer requests because in this part there is a lively conversation which involves a number of different voices, and the key emblematic “prefer not to” is tossed around a lot. The segment actually could have been one of any number, for the novella engages the reader from start to finish. The second part of my role was to proof listen to the recording and mix annotated tracks into a final version where all participants would have jumped in and added voices and sounds to enliven and humanize the monotonous robotic voice. Had we had more time, we would have annotated more extensively.
As I worked on finding ways to bring the thing we had created, Frankenstein-like, back to life, I forged a deeper relationship with Melville’s text and a greater appreciation of the context of its times. I had said that the lawyer was from the South; I had based this bold assumption on his comparing Broadway to the Mississippi; I realized that his references to canonical white male literature and philosophy – Lord Byron, Cicero, the Bible, Marius at Carthage and so on – were representative of the slave-trading aristocratic South, while the scriveners represented the industrial North. I also – probably because I annotated to push against the automated voice – appreciated how very funny Melville’s tragic novella is. Finally, I came to appreciate the exercise of dehumanizing and rehumanizing the text as a potentially rich conversation that could be a pleasure to listen to.