It is no use: I cannot keep my eyes open. Thus, a repost, dusted down as it is taken from the shelf. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you The Scribe.

Once, I was shopping for a treat for my daughter, when it called in silvery tones from a stationers’ shelf.

It was distinctive: because it was made of hand-made paper, and it came from a country far, far away. When one opened it and shut it, it made a muted ‘flup’ which implored one to write. carefully, in its pages, archiving only the most important and beautiful of words. Once written down, they would whisper silently from the page in the most musical of undertones.

She loved it instantly: and ever since, handmade paper has been king.

It was the perfect gift. I snapped it up and, just as I was turning to go, I spotted a notebook which was singing my name, too. Paler, thicker, with a satin cover decorated with pretty gems, it said: I am a  book waiting to be written. Take me home and fill me with words.

OK, I said. Because much of our writing is done on a virtual screen, these days. The creamy criss cross of hand-made paper is true luxury.

Writing on this paper has not always been that way.

Four thousands of years, Scrivener has been a vital profession, far back and further than the Ancient Egyptians.

But with the advent of printing these captors of the written word became less vital. Nevertheless they could still command a salary from the legal profession.

Roundabout 1392, documents from London begin to record people as members of a very distinctive organisation. The Worshipful Company of Scriveners of the City Of London  seems to have been sanctioned by no less than The Archbishop Of Canterbury. Its purpose was to make sure all London’s scriveners, engaged in copying documents for the legal profession, maintained integrity in business and were competent in their work.

By 1498 a test was instigated, to make sure these learned copyists knew their grammar.

Over the centuries, members included Dr Samuel Johnson’s great friend John (Jack) Ellis. Scriveners were often fathers of the great: among their sons are Milton, Thomas Kyd, and Thomas Gray, who wrote that Elegy in a Country Churchyard.

My favourite – if most unsettling – scrivener, though, did not hail from these shores, but washed up on a sea of listless inaction, in nineteenth century New York.

Bartleby the Scrivener took shape in the hands of Herman Melville, of Moby Dick fame. His story hinges not on a plot, but on a character: Bartleby, a scrivener who would prefer not.

There is something of the grotesque pariah about this character; but reading his story is compelling. And it is told by a master. It was first published in Putnam’s Monthly Magazine of American Literature at the end of 1853. The story is told by an old lawyer who likes a quiet life and has designed a comfortable business which ensures he never has to do anything too strenuous.

Recruitment is not his strong point. He already has two flawed scriveners in his employ, and when Bartleby turns up his ‘sedate aspect’ impresses the old man. Perhaps, he thinks hopefully, this man will be a beneficial influence on the other two.

Bartleby starts well, gorging himself on written documents. But one day soon after his arrival, the old lawyer asks Bartleby to accompany him and the other scriveners in proof reading ‘quadruplicates’ of a document taken before him the week before in the High Court of Chancery.

Bartleby simply says: “I would prefer not to”, and disappears behind some screen or other.

The lawyer is dumbfounded: but there is something about this strange man that prevents him from taking him to task. And this is the first of many negative preferences, to a point where Bartleby is doing no work at all. It becomes clear presently that he is sleeping in the office; and when the firm moves he continues to occupy the premises. sleeping on the steps outside when the new occupants evict him.

I will not spoil the outcome of the story for those who have not read it: there are few stranger characters than this, who eschews, one by one, all the elements of a normal life, and all with courtesy and gravity.

That paper: it does beckon so.

It seduces writers young and old. It has framed our statutes and precedents in the legal profession for centuries, and before that the words of kings written were drawn to tablets and papyrus.

But paper is a call to arms for a writer and scrivener: a summons to move forward and act.

Which is why a scrivener unable to act, caught in stasis or inaction, or depression, is a terrible thing indeed.

It gives a whole new meaning to the term ‘Writer’s Block’.


34 thoughts on “Scrivener

  1. Morning Kate. I shall add that story to my “must read” list – sounds too good to miss!

    I use a laptop but I still use notebooks too. I always keep a little black one in my handbag. You never know when there’ll be something you just need to record on the spot,as it happens, or a snatch of conversation. 🙂

      1. Your handbag’s probably way better organised than mine Kate. If I scrabble around for long enough I can come up with four pens, a notebook, a diary. Maybe I should empty it out a little more often….. 😉

  2. I wrote all my notes in college by hand on many tablets of lined paper and my handwriting has never been the same. I could barely read my own writing back then and now occasionally have trouble if I am taking a lot of notes quickly for the purpose of writing up minutes of a meeting. I still prefer to write notes to myself for all the daily things to do even though I have a couple of “notes” apps on my iThingy. The problem is that I forget to look at the iThingy notes and it’s so much easier to pull a piece of paper out of my pocket and write a quick note to myself. I guess I would make a terrible scrivener.

    1. There is something about a real piece of paper, Lou! I remember transferring everything – diary dates, to-dos, reminders and so on- to a psion, in the days when they were the latest greatest thing. I missed so many vital appointments because I wasn’t turning the pages of the diary. Somehow its spatial organisation was part of my picture of time….

  3. I love seeing beautiful, straight lines of precise penmanship in journals, diaries, logs, etc., but my handwriting, at best, has always tended to march either uphill or down, and never been uniform in its sizing either. Aging has not improved its appearance! 🙂

    I well remember my first job in a law firm in the days of carbon paper; huge documents, in triplicate, and the boss decides to add three paragraphs to the second page . . . EVERYTHING from that point forward then had to be re-typed!! I would not have survived if that had been hand-written work!! Typing/keyboarding was always tied to my livelihood and to my correspondences as well.

    Modern day scriveners are blessed with lovely aides: No excuses for a Bartleby these days!

  4. I have several of my diaries and journals going all the way back to kindergarten and my Holly Hobbie one. It is fun to see how I’ve changed as my penmanship changed, to gauge whether I was in a hurry or had scads of time on my hands, to see through the strokes on the page what my mood was when I wrote. Now, I almost never write anything by hand, because I can type so fast that I can almost keep up with what my characters want to do. I know I’m going to regret that someday………

  5. I love blank pages, ready and waiting to be fed with our words.

    A few years ago I shredded a 2 foot high stack of journals dating back to college . . . they were words meant for no eyes but mine. I no longer wanted them lying about inspiring curiosity in others. 😀

    1. Very wise, Nancy. These things are doomed to be discovered, and really – who wants that? Yet I have kept reflective thinking journals and somehow the very act of writing them down seems to help in the reflection. Strange, really.

  6. When I was younger, and of course long before computers, one of my favorite things was to buy beautiful paper. And I could really write my heart out on it. I think my brain has just rewired to almost need the computer. It’s like I can’t think if I have a pen in hand. I’m sure that could be remedied–think Julia Cameron–but right now I’m struggling too much for time! I do think I’ve lost something, though, with moving almost 100% to the computer. Debra

  7. It is lovely writing on paper, I liked typewriters and am thinking of getting one again if its possible to find enough ribbon to last. I do a mix now with phone, pc, recording voice, writing notes on paper – you can’t just easily doodle in the space between words on a pc whilst you are randomly thinking.
    What a fascinating story.

  8. I keep a beautiful, sturdy little notebook in my shoulder bag at all times. The flow of ink on paper sometimes unlocks things a computer screen cannot.

    And you’ve kindled an interest in Melville. No small feat, Kate!

    1. I love this tale – I think it’s subtitled a Wall Steet Tale – it has so much of the modern about it, while being really quite old; and Bartleby just seeps into your bones like some insipid intruder. Great stuff.

  9. aloha Kate – you write a great read. i have to say i have not read Bartleby the Scrivener, altho now i know it will be added to the lists of books i want to get to. . .

    i also have to say, that paper in those books that you spoke of… that paper speaks to me as well. especially that fine handmade paper that is such a pleasure to draw upon with ink or graphite or color tools. …and yes, fill the book up with images and exploration. way fun. aloha.

    1. Hi Rick: great to hear from you, and really enjoyed a visit to your blog: the combination of beautiful words and images reminds me of a beautifully kept notebook. Bartleby’s link is on the page somewhere: he’s not too long a read and such an arresting- if unsettling – character. Aloha to you too, and thank you for popping in!

      1. thank you for the link. sometimes it takes me a while to get to all the things i want to do. however i have read novels and stories from those pre-modern times – or at least a century or two ago. and they are well worth it. they build. i find i am often struggling initially to follow the language (altho it is english) and sentences used. by about a quarter of the way into the book i cant let go. the characters come alive in breath taking depth. and i’m suddenly IN that world and have to go on. it’s one of the beauties of great books and great writers that break the bounds of the age they write and are written in – and yet capture that time/era too. knowing that, from your description… yeah, i need to find that book. ha.

        thank you regarding my work. i’m glad you enjoyed it. notebooks and sketchbooks are one of my favored things to explore. my own as well as those of other writers and visual artists. because they often show me a glimpse into the mind behind the finished work(s) – and that is way fun. so i am very pleased with the way you see my blog – i think that is exactly how i approach it as well as also with the mind that each work is a finished work within each page. i like that concept too. – way fun. aloha.

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