Reading through syntax in ‘Bartleby’

While completing our Bartleby audiobook, my attention was most drawn to how much more my understanding of the text was newly grounded in literal words, diction, and syntax, as opposed to imagery or theoretical and hypothetical ideas within the text.

It also forced me to wrestle with the central question, what is the “right” way to read?, in the outwardly expressed mode of audibly reading the text. This resulted in a much more tangible engagement and expression of that question. I found that in speaking the text I inhabited an area of tension where I was reading simultaneously closer and further than I previously had; some sentences, with challenging syntax, diction, and grammar required a more behavioral, practiced approach where I was focused on my adequate performance of what and how the text was written rather than on the meaning of the text. Other sentences pulled my focus to the opposite. The push and pull of this effect could alternate in each sentence:

Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance.

If the individual so resisted be of a not inhumane temper, and the resisting one perfectly harmless in his passivity; then, in the better moods of the former, he will endeavor charitably to construe to his imagination what proves impossible to be solved by his judgment.

Even so, for the most part, I regarded Bartleby and his ways.

Poor fellow! thought I, he means no mischief; it is plain he intends no insolence; his aspect sufficiently evinces that his eccentricities are involuntary.

He is useful to me. (pg 10, I think)

Overtime, while reading aloud, I appreciated the flow and rhythm resulting from this structure and became much more comfortable speaking through it. By the end of my recorded segment, I actually found myself needing to slow down, because I had adjusted to speedily moving through the sentences. This created a tension, however, when I would make a mistake and feel the frustration and destabilizing effect of having a break in the rhythm. This comfort, speed, and breakage also mirrored the development of the narrative and the anxieties and excitement of the narrator as he continued through his story of Bartleby, so my own flubs and pauses (the word ‘ignominiously’ was a serious obstacle for me) created an uncomfortable but also parallel breach in that rhythm that I had a hard time taking in stride as a productive reading tool.

The aspect I was most excited to hear in the completed project was the echo effect of many voices at each “I prefer not to,” and how it mimicked the disruptions of my reading in a more purposeful and controlled way, by creating a slowing but also confusing and obfuscating effect when the phrase appeared. It also gave a consistent tone throughout the narrative as we switched readers, and complicated my understanding of Bartleby as a single, rare, uncommon human to more of an indefinite type. The echoing also gave a ghostly effect which emphasized his death at the end and how the story is being told from a place of the narrator’s haunting memory of him.

A criticism I have for myself, however, is that with all the challenges and the time required to read out loud, I wish I could have spent the time recording multiple takes as I developed a strengthened sense of voice and character, plot, sub-themes, grasp on the language and syntax, etc.  While I was able to get a lot out of reading aloud as a personal close-reading exercise, I’m not positive that had a listener heard my voice alone without effects or without being framed by the other narrators in my group, that they would not grasp the issues that I found myself countering (and benefiting from) during my reading.

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