On Tuesday, my boss called in the afternoon to say a professor was in her office who wanted somebody to edit something he had written “in real time.” In other words, now. I walked downstairs, not knowing what to expect, and met an engineering professor with a Slavic accent clutching a pile of papers. We retired to the coffee room and sat at a table across from two young men who appeared to be students. The professor wanted me to edit about 250 words of copy on the subject of carbon nanotubes. He was flying to a conference in Colorado in a few hours and needed an immediate rewrite. His grasp of English articles – a, and, the – was a little uncertain but the piece required only minor surgery and very little time. I complimented his command of written English and asked where he came from. “Russia, of course,” he said, and I mentioned that I loved his country’s literature and had recently written something about Chekhov.
In unison, the professor and the two students sitting at the table smiled, raised their arms like orchestra conductors about to deliver the down beat, and said, “Ah, Chekhov!” Seldom have I seen so spontaneous and synchronized an expression of pleasure. “These guys, they are from Russia, too,” the professor said, and we all shook hands like old friends. “So, you’ve read Chekhov?” I asked, knowing that if I asked two American engineering students and their professor if they had read, say, Melville, I would be unlikely to get an affirmative answer. “Of course,” the professor said. “Everyone reads Chekhov.”
Just like everyone reads Melville.
As we were walking down the hall, glowing with our mutual love of Chekhov and all things Russian, I told the professor I thought he resembled the late Russian poet Josef Brodsky – balding, prominent cheekbones, steel-rimmed glasses. He blushed and said, “Oh, no, no, no. I have no talent.”