Restless Reads: Amherst College professor leads virtual book club

  • Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel ‘Passing,” now considered a classic book from the Harlem Renaissance, explores themes of race, gender and sexuality.

  • Restless Reads, a virtual book club, is led by writer and longtime Amherst College professor Ilan Stavans. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 5/15/2020 2:58:25 PM
Modified: 5/15/2020 2:58:13 PM

Another COVID-19-related cancellation: book clubs. 

Unless you want to meet online.

And why not? That’s the spirit behind “Restless Reads,” a virtual book club started in April by Restless Books, a publishing company based in Brooklyn, New York (but with Valley connections) and the Jones Library in Amherst. 

Restless Books is headed by Ilan Stavans, the writer and longtime Amherst College professor of Latin American Literature and Latino Culture. Stavans, whose writing ranges across a number of fields, notes that Restless Books has a “classics” line featuring new editions of notable books (“Don Quixote” “Robinson Crusoe,” “Night and Day”) with new introductions and explanatory notes written by modern scholars, with links to teaching videos on the Restless Books website.

In a recent phone call, Stavans said that model seemed like a good starting point for an online book discussion group, one that could be hosted on Zoom to bridge the barrier imposed on physical get-togethers by the pandemic.

“I think this was the same impulse that has been behind a lot of what we’re seeing today — how can we help others?” he said. “How can we come together in this strange time we’re in?”

Last month, Stavans noted, about 100 people, including some from China, Europe and other locations, logged on for two, roughly hour-long sessions to discuss Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.” Stavans led the discussion, a fairly loosely organized one with a fair amount of “free association,” he says, and which included a range of people in both age and background. 

“It really was a very joyful experience to see and hear all these different people taking part in this,” he said.

Restless Books oversees the logistics of the process and has been joined by the Jones Library, which now co-sponsors the readings; Stavans says the New York Public Library system is also interested in becoming part of the event beginning in June.

“Frankenstein” seemed liked a good pick to begin the discussion, he added, given that the character of Victor Frankenstein speaks to the dangers of the unrestrained pursuit of science, a concern today with the rapid advance of technology in many fields. Mary Shelley would also later pen “The Last Man,” one of the first post-apocalyptic novels ever written (it takes place after a deadly plague has swept the planet).

This month, the book club is discussing “Passing,” a 1929 novel by Nella Larsen that is set in Harlem and revolves around the reunion of two childhood friends and the intense relationship that develops between them. The book explores a number of issues, including sexuality and race, such as the notion of “passing” as white (Larsen was the daughter of a white Danish woman and a black man from the Caribbean).

The first session for “Passing” took place on May 14, and the next book club meeting takes place May 21 at 8 p.m. To register for the event — it’s free — visit restlessbooks.org/blog/. Print, audio and e-editions of “Passing” and other titles are available through Restless Books.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.


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