Pushing Paper

by Ben Kafka


Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street
by Herman Melville (1853)

Bouvard and Pécuchet
by Gustave Flaubert (1881)

Why is there no Norton Anthology of Paperwork? Though the trove of Franz Kafka manuscripts hidden away in safe-deposit boxes has attracted more attention from the mainstream media, the collection of newly translated memos that the author crafted during his years as a staff lawyer for the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute in Prague is the real treasure. Kafka: “The Institute is convinced that if the case were such that the risk category for sheep’s-wool-weaving mills had been higher than the category for cotton-weaving mills, pressure would have been exerted to get the mixed-weaving mills classified as cotton-weaving mills, a change that would, if only coincidentally, have corresponded to actual conditions.”

Not bad. Nor is Kafka the only important modern author to have spent much of his time and energy at work on sentences like these. Who wrote, “I paid a visit to the Ministry of Public Instruction. There I verified that you have only one justificatory document to provide…I am confident that the minister, in his letter to the prefect of La Manche, will not ask for anything more. I thus believe that writing this letter of justification and transmitting it to monsieur the prefect, explaining to him the particular circumstances in which you find yourself, should suffice for him to recognize his error”?

Or who wrote, “Probationary faculty are reminded that enrollment, the needs of the department, teaching excellence, service, and the candidate’s scholarly productivity are essential considerations in annual pretenure reviews, third-year reviews, and tenure recommendations”?

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