Douglas Trevor 2017
The strange ways of books
by Keith Taylor
From the October, 2017 issue
U-M English professor Douglas Trevor could have a comfortable life as an academic specializing in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English literature. He has done the work and earned the prestigious degrees, but he is clearly not satisfied to find himself in one box. So he writes fiction, which ends up widely published and finds its way into interesting collections. He has just published The Book of Wonders, which sounds as if it could be something from or about the seventeenth century but is actually a wonderful collection of twenty-first-century short stories.
As you might expect, academics appear in some of Trevor's stories, usually seen through a satiric lens. In "The Program in Profound Thought"--the very title of which gives away the author's attitude--a failed academic takes advantage of his university's superficial dedication to "interdisciplinarity" to create a program that never meets, with lectures that never happen. The lectures get extravagant titles like "Red Fruits, Green Vegetables, and the Mind Diet of Post-Structuralism" or "Relativity, Bikram Yoga, and the Automotive Arts," and he uses the budget to build a deck behind his house. A new dean gets suspicious, and the scheme begins to unravel. It's very funny, not least because it feels almost as if it could be real.
In "The Detroit Frankfurt School Discussion Group," an adjunct lecturer is kidnapped from the streets of Ann Arbor, taken to an abandoned warehouse in Detroit, and forced to talk to a group of unemployed revolutionaries about German philosopher Max Horkheimer's early thought. As you might expect, he is quickly confronted with the limitations of his own understanding.
My favorite stories in The Book of Wonders are the ones where books or the act of reading, even the process of the scholarship that studies old texts, become mysterious. The strange way that books move into our lives and change or shape things in often eerie ways that academics seldom imagine becomes the theme that animates several of these stories. In "Endymion," a
quiet and extraordinarily good-looking man changes a lonely woman's life. He is, as his name suggests, something out of myth and out of John Keats. The woman doesn't trust her own reaction to him, and we are left with the sense that perhaps a thing of beauty might not be a joy forever. Then, again, perhaps it might have been?
In "Sonnet 126," an independent scholar discovers the infamous two lines that would finish Shakespeare's poem. The scholar is a lover of libraries and books--Trevor tells us that "since his teenage years, he had always had a romantic appreciation for the figure of the reader. He liked the look of intensity in his eyes: the tapping of fingers and toes while the rest of the body remained motionless, even languid." The rediscovered couplet changes our understanding of Shakespeare and forces the scholar to change his own life. I won't give away Trevor's imagining of those two mysterious, forgotten lines.
Trevor reads from The Book of Wonders at Literati Bookstore on October 17.
[Originally published in October, 2017.]
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