What’s in a Name

Having gotten about 25,000 words into this blog,FN 1 I figure it’s time I explain the name and my overall goal for this project.

As you may have guessed, the blog title is a reference to Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street. (Kindle link, public domain text). It’s a short story, and worth reading in full if you’ve never done so, but here’s a quick recap if you don’t feel like reading the full thing (spoilers, obviously):

Bartleby the Scrivener tells the story of a man named Bartleby, who comes to work in the law offices of the narrator. At first, Bartleby does great work, but gradually he starts refusing to do certain tasks. When he does, he never makes a fuss; he just says that he would “prefer not to” and does not do the task. Over the course of the story, this escalates—until Bartleby “prefers not to” do anything, and spends his days staring at a wall. Eventually, the narrator tries to fire Bartleby, but Bartleby refuses to leave; the narrator eventually changes law offices entirely to avoid Bartleby. The new tenants of the narrator’s old law offices tell Bartleby that he’ll be taken off to prison if he doesn’t leave. He still “prefers not to” leave, and thus is taken away. In prison, he continues “preferring not to” do more and more; eventually, Bartleby prefers not to eat—even though the narrator arranges for him to have much better food than the typical prison fair. Ultimately, Bartleby prefers not to continue living, and dies.

According to Wikipedia, there are some people who view this story as a portrait of clinical depression. Needless to say, this is not the interpretation that this blog takes!

I adopt a less literal, more philosophical reading: that Bartleby lived and died as a free man. Bartleby, were he more verbose, could have said:

I am free, no matter what rules surround me. If I find them tolerable, I tolerate them; if I find them too obnoxious, I break them. I am free because I know that I alone am morally responsible for everything I do.

(Since Bartleby isn’t that explicit, that quote actually comes from The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, another great story dealing with similar philosophical themes.)

The thesis of this blog is that there should be more preferring not to—more philosophical freedom—both in the world as a whole and in my life in particular.

There are some times when people aren’t free to prefer not to, when they have to comply with external demands if they want to eat, or keep a roof over their heads. But in the modern world, many people have more than enough to live a materially comfortable life and to be free from being compelled to do anything they don’t choose to do. And people who are free in that way can focus on making the world a better, happier place—both for themselves and their family and for the world as a whole.

So many people, though, get caught up in doing what is expected of them, or playing status games. People end up struggling their whole lives without ever reaching the point where they turn away from those pursuits and toward something else. I believe more people should prefer not to, should opt out of the ambitions and status hierarchies of the modern world, should remain free in the Moon-is-a-Harsh-Mistress way.

This is not a political point. People across the political spectrum—many of whom I would disagree with strongly on other issues—that make the point it is possible to be happy with much less money than many Americans seem to pursue. And reaching that point of self-suficency brings an important kind of freedom.

And the Backpack

So, that’s the “Bartleby” part of Bartleby’s Backpack. How about the “backpack”?

First, it’s not a Bartleby’s Knapsack or Bartleby’s Bookbag. We’re talking about a real backpack here. We’re talking about the sort of pack that you strap to your back, with all the possessions you need to get through a long journey. The goal is that this blog will be exactly that sort of backpack: a portable toolkit with everything I/we need to get to the preferring-not-to state of freedom.

With all that in mind, the purpose of this blog is two-fold. First, from time to time, I will provide updates on my own journey from a fully conventional life to one full of preferring not to. Right now, my life is one where I am not free, at least in the sense that Bartleby is free—to such an extent that I don’t want to fully tie this blog to my offline identity. I have plans, and as they progress I will blog about them. Maybe I can chart the course a bit for others interested in working hard in pursuit of the same sort of freedom.

Second and more importantly, this blog is itself an act of preferring not to. Whether I’m blogging about scientific progress, books, or the analysis of video games, producing content for this blog is a way to do something that isn’t part of the traditional ladder of success in our (American) culture. It’s not another rung on the corporate hierarchy. But, at the same time, blogging is still engaged with the world. The idea is not to retreat into a monastic existence, it’s to find a different and less conventional way to relate to the world.

If this blog resonates with readers, it will be a way of contributing to the conversation without going through the usual channels. It will be an act of preferring not to.

In the next several days, I will add an “about” section to the website, which will incorporate much of the material from this post. If you have any thoughts or want to offer any course-corrections before that page goes up, now’s you chance. Either way, thanks for reading this far and I hope you are looking forward to the trail ahead just as much as I am.

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2 thoughts on “What’s in a Name”

  1. Honestly, I’m really glad I read your synopsis because I’m not sure I would have taken the same message away from that story, and it’s a message that I love. I’ve often had very similar feelings questioning how we live our lives; trying, and often failing, to find a balance between complying with the systems our society creates (whether or not they were created as intended or even intentionally) while also striving to live our live as we see fit. I could ramble on a good while longer on the topic, but I’m not sure I’ve even managed to write coherently this far.

    On a personal note, I’ve been hoping to begin my own “prefer not to” journey soon. It’s just taking a lot longer than expected to get off the ground…

    Best luck to you on your journey. I’ve loved everything you’ve posted and plan to keep reading.

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