Bartelby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street is a short story by Herman Melville in which an odd legal scrivener interrupts the logical thought of his boss. I read the story in three modes: plain as it was, and then annotated by two different websites, Slate and Genius. The former is a journalist’s website with paid writers, while the latter is a website that invites readers to make their own annotations. Both the annotated and the original versions have their ups and downs.
To start, the clearest benefits of the annotated versions come with diction. This story, being that about industry of law, uses legal terms that a layman like myself may have no definition. For instance, the terms ‘ere’ and ‘imprimis’ meant nothing to me before reading this story. Though ordinarily I would have to look up the definition, the Genius annotations offered definitions for the jargon. The Slate annotations, on the other hand, did not. Among this dissonance is where I began to see the difference between the two annotating sites. The crowd-sourcing site favored more practical and specific annotations, such as definitions or further elaboration on concepts, such as ‘cannel coal’ and what exactly makes it unique in its context, and a straightforward interpretation of the story’s events. The Slate annotations, on the other hand, worked to engage the reader with the subtext of the story. A direct comparison between the different annotations of the line,
“I am a man who, from his youth upwards, has been filled with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best,”
proves my point.
The Genius annotation says that the narrator prefers the, “easy way of life very includes meeting the expectations set for him by others,” adding on that he will be confronted with this later on in the story. The obviousness to this annotation coupled with poor grammar (along with the +1 upvote of the annotation), set the tone for what it is like to read this story on Genius. Slate, on the other hand, takes a different approach. It takes this quote and accuses the narrator as being unreliable. The annotator claims that this quote suggests a calm-temper that we know he will and has contradicted. Unlike the Genius annotation, Slate’s annotator looks at this quote within the larger context of the story. In fact, this annotation, that highlights merely the words ‘I am a man’, comments on more than just that first sentence. Slate addresses the following sentence in its annotation as well, particularly when the narrator makes the claim that he doesn’t let anything invade his peace. The Genius annotation reflects only that which is highlighted, in what can come off as a vacuum in regards to the rest of the story. The Slate annotation, on the other hand, regards more than is merely highlighted, and does so with respect to deeper symbolism.
On a much more superficial level, the interface of Genius is a lot less professional-looking when compared to that of Slate. With Genius, only that which is highlighted can be annotated, and that may make making more intricate claims difficult. It also does not require peer editing and relies on the user’s vote to establish credibility. On high traffic pages this is fine, but with something like this Melville story, its hard not to think that I’m just reading some guy’s thoughts on the piece. The Slate site, on the other hand, offers annotations by what we assume to be is a credible source. It also breaks the annotations into categories, which I would find really helpful in the case that I only want help with economic and historical references.
Lastly, although the most obvious benefit of annotations its use as a dictionary, I think I have learned through this activity that it is not the most important. I found the Slate annotations to be much more enriching than the Genius ones. I think I walked away from the Slate version with a much more robust understanding of the story because I engaged with it on a more subtextual level. While Genius did provide insight, I felt that it only worked to clear up surface-level confuse I had with the story and its writing style. Slate left me with a deeper meaning the story than I had had when I read it annotation free. In regards to my future annotations, I am going to shoot for making it look like Slate. I want to engage the reader to question the text in front of it further, not simply answer the questions of definition like I had been doing up until now.