Bartleby Goes to College

Ashley Thorne

Le Moyne College announced that it has received “national praise” for its first-year reading selection. Le Moyne, a small Jesuit college in Syracuse, NY, chose Herman Melville’s short story, “Bartleby, The Scrivener,” for both the 2012-2013 and the 2013-2014 academic years, as its annual summer assignment to freshmen.

The NAS’s 2013 Beach Books report noted that Le Moyne was one of only eight colleges out of 309 to assign a book published before 1990, and one of only four to choose anything that could be termed a “classic” book. By “classic,” we mean a work that has been broadly recognized as having stood the test of time. At less than 15,000 words, “Bartleby” is a short story, not a book, but its language is rich and its tale of a crushed spirit is abidingly real. Melville paints the deadbeat employee with sketches such as, “At such times, too, his face flamed with augmented blazonry, as if cannel coal had been heaped on anthracite.”

In the description of its reading program, Le Moyne quotes from the National Association of Scholars: “Classic books are indeed a little more difficult than non-classics, and they require the reader to insert himself into a different era from his own…While it is better for college students to read something rather than nothing, realism doesn’t have to mean catering to students’ comfort zones. It is not unrealistic to expect students who aspire to a college education to read challenging books.”

According to Le Moyne’s website, “Bartleby” was chosen “for the very reasons the [NAS] study discusses.” College Provost Linda Lemura wrote, “We refuse to compromise on the common intellectual experience that reading a classic piece of literature like Bartleby evokes in our students.”

The NAS commends Le Moyne for bucking the common reading trend and choosing a time-tested work for students’ first college-level intellectual endeavor. As for selecting older and more challenging reading, many other colleges would prefer not to.

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