Where Richard Rodriguez meets Bartleby, the Scrivener; or, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”

“I’d prefer not,” Bartleby tells his boss. Bartleby, a scrivener, has given up, no longer reads the newspaper, has no home and lives in the law offices of his employer, staring at the wall. A scrivener was a human copy machine, a viable trade before typewriters and carbon paper and then copy machines. What explains Bartleby’s behavior? Perhaps he saw the writing on the wall, as have Richard Rodriquez and other commenters on the disappearance of newspapers.

In the November, 2009 Harpers, we find Richard Rodriguez bemoaning the demise of newspapers, a haunt frequented by journalists these days: “We no longer imagine the newspaper as a city or the city as a newspaper…I do not believe the decline of newspapers has been the result solely of computer technology or of the Internet.” But critics who can’t wait to get the newspapers off their front porch ask not the reasons for its disappearance, but “so what?,” to which Rodriguez responds, “So what is lost? Only bricks and mortar. (The contemptuous reply.) Cities are bricks and mortar. Cities are bricks and mortar and bodies.” For Rodriguez, the loss of the newspaper is the loss of our city, of our very flesh and blood. “We will not read about newlyweds,” Rodriguez says: “We will not read about the death of salesmen. We will not read about prize Holsteins or new novels. We are a nation dismantling the structures of intellectual property and all critical apparatus. We are without professional book reviewers and art critics and essays about what it might mean that our local newspaper has died. We are a nation of Amazon reader responses (Moby Dick is ‘not a really good piece of fiction’— Feb. 14, 2009, by Donald J. Bingle, Saint Charles, Ill.—two stars out of five). ”

Bingle responded in a letter Harpers printed in their January issue, just arrived, and it is of particular interest regarding the dialog lacking in newspapers which encourages some critics to prefer their on-line evolution. Unfortunately, while Bingle does establish some ethos as a published writer (and we suspect he must have mentioned his Chicago law degree, but Harpers may have edited his letter for space?), his letter reinforces Rodriguez’s point, if that point was to explain that the Amazon reviewers are generally writing opinion, not criticism, what they want in a book, not what they find, if anything, in a book. We do need professional critics, but if Rodriguez’s point is that the Amazon reviewers are in part the cause of the disappearance of newspapers, we fail to see how an army of Amazon reviewers, of amateur readers, is a bad thing. Nick Hornby has also famously attacked the Amazon reviewers. While we agree that Bingle’s review of Moby Dick is not helpful, we don’t see amateur reading and writing as a philistine front eating away at the borders of our print culture.

Meanwhile, Paul Starr, writing in The New Republic (March 4, 2009), also recognizes the demise of the newspaper as we’ve known it is inevitable, but Starr also points out that what we’ve known did have its flaws (monopolies, excessive operating profits not always reinvested in the public good, and declining readership beginning probably with the advent of television – the history of the Los Angeles Times is revealing on monopoly and biased reporting, and its story as a reincarnated, functional newspaper, is remarkable. Still, its history may reinforce Starr’s point that newspapers perform a public good, but not by definition; they perform a public good only if they are good newspapers. Hendrik Hertzberg, in an April 23, 2001 New Yorker review, remarks that “for eighty of its hundred and twenty years…the LA Times was venal, vicious, stupid, and dull”). Starr’s piece is less impressionistic than Rodriguez’s, and his hope has to do with the public good that newspapers provide, for “As imperfect as they have been, newspapers have been the leading institutions sustaining the values of professional journalism. A financially compromised press is more likely to be ethically compromised. And while the new digital environment is more open to ‘citizen journalism’ and the free expression of opinions, it is also more open to bias, and to journalism for hire. Online there are few clear markers to distinguish blogs and other sites that are being financed to promote a viewpoint from news sites operated independently on the basis of professional rules of reporting. So the danger is not just more corruption of government and business – it is also more corruption of journalism itself.”

At that point, of course, it’s no longer journalism, but propaganda, the reporter someone’s mouthpiece. Whatever might be said of the amateur reader and writer, presumably his ears and mouth are at least his own, and while he might listen to the weatherman, he prefers not to base his opinions solely on the predictions of professionals, for he knows the outdoors, and knows other things as well, knows that all the writing, good and bad, ends up in the recycle bin, most of it unread. But we’ll give Melville the last word here, from the end of “Bartleby”:

“Bartleby had been [prior to his scrivener job] a subordinate clerk in the Dead Letter Office…Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men? Conceive a man by nature and misfortune prone to a pallid hopelessness, can any business seem more fitted to heighten it than that of continually handling these dead letters and assorting them for the flames? For by the cart-load they are annually burned. Sometimes from out the folded paper the pale clerk takes a ring:—the finger it was meant for, perhaps, moulders in the grave; a bank-note sent in swiftest charity:—he whom it would relieve, nor eats nor hungers any more; pardon for those who died despairing; hope for those who died unhoping; good tidings for those who died stifled by unrelieved calamities. On errands of life, these letters speed to death.

Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!”

Note: “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows” is from Bob Dylan’s song “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” from the Bringing It All Back Home album, 1965.