“I would prefer not to.” I read these five words written by a student, just below the essay directions, and near the end of this year’s 10th grade English final exam.  I smiled.

Soon, it happened again.  This time near the start of another student’s exam, when he had to identify who wrote the classic American short story, “Bartleby the Scrivener.”  Written neatly near the question: “I would prefer not to.” (accented by a smiley face).  They were taking an exam, and somehow enjoying themselves!

Were my American literature students rebelling after working their way through Puritans, Patriots, Transcendentalists, Whitman, Hawthorne, Poe, Fitzgerald, and more?  Hardly.  They were sharing an inside joke made possible through the gift of a good book.

Early in the year, students read Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener.” The main character – Bartleby – inexplicably refuses to do the work he is hired to perform, responding to every request with a polite “I would prefer not to.” This phrase became a running gag, popping up when homework was assigned or a simple request made to pass out some papers.  The comment never failed to make me smile.  Why?  Because the students were experiencing the value of reading: it allows you to add an intelligent comment to a conversation; reading broadens your horizons; it encourages your imagination, and simply put, makes you a more interesting person.  Books come bearing such gifts.

By the end of the year, books also begin to travel from reader to reader.  Recently, a student emailed a suggested replacement for poor “Bartleby,” who was not well loved among the students despite his convenient “I prefer not to” phrase.  He wanted to share a campy, wonderfully Gothic short story by Faulkner, “A Rose for Emily.”

I knew the story well and we exchanged details in that short hand manner readers use: “Wasn’t it hysterical when… I know, and how about…!”  I suggested he read my favorite flaky Southern ladies  – Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers.  Then I realized I owned two copies of McCullers’ “The Ballad of the Sad Café,” and I gave him one to keep. His surprise, his smile, and his desire to jump into the stories reminded me why we read, and as teachers, why we teach.

As theologian Desiderius Erasmus famously noted: “When I have a little money, I buy books; and if I have any left, I buy food and clothes.”