Virtual Book Club Connects Luther Alumni

The COVID-19 pandemic has all but eliminated many events for past Luther community members to remain connected to their alma mater. In response, a group of Luther faculty emeriti, staff, and alumni have started a popular virtual book club, with 40 participants regularly attending meetings. Associate Director of Alumni Relations Kirk Johnson (‘82) helped put the book club together, and explained how he went about forming the group.
“I started by recruiting faculty emeriti,” Johnson said. “I sent out an email to all the emeriti from Luther who are retired and who still enjoy teaching, and I had a number of them step up to teach several of the book clubs.”
The book club meets once a week on Tuesdays from 5:00-6:30 pm over Zoom, with members discussing the reading from the past week. The members spend around four weeks in total on each book. The book of each month is suggested and chosen by different co-moderators of the club, who base their selections on various important themes they think are particularly relevant.
“We get together and try to get ideas about how we think this session should go,” Emeritus Professor of French and Italian Language and Literature Ruth Caldwell, co-moderator of the book club, said. “We generally want the greatest amount of participation from the people, so we try to highlight themes and select chapters to read, [similar to] the type of planning professors do in the classes they teach.”
So far, the book selections have varied widely. Many stories run parallel to the state of the world today, whether it be about social movements like Black Lives Matter, COVID-19 compared to past pandemics, or the importance of education in today’s world. Influenced by the Black Lives Matter protests that transpired over this past summer, the alumni book club chose three works regarding race in America, including How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi, Invisible no More by Andrea Ritchie, and The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin. The alumni felt it was important to read and discuss important topics like race in America, especially because of how COVID-19 has kept everyone another at a distance.
“During this ‘Covid’ time, it’s good to connect with people, and it’s good to connect with people about important topics,” Paul Gardner, a co-moderator of the book club and a Luther College emeritus who taught Global Politics, Politics and Religion, and Terrorism and Democracy, said.
Currently, the club is reading The Decameron. The story was written in the 1300s during the Bubonic Plague, and centers around ten people in isolation who keep each other entertained by telling each other a new story every day. Co-moderator of the discussion, Michelle Minske (‘84), explains why this book is particularly important to read now.
“When you read the book, it’s such a connection to the past,” Minske said. “We’re not the only people who have gone through this.”
The book club has brought alumni together from all over the world to engage in important discussions involving current events. Through these discussions, alumni can continue to connect with one another. Emeritus Professor of Communication Studies Alan Lerstrom, co-leader of the alumni book club, hints at the club’s continued existence, even after the pandemic is over.
“I think [the book club] is very good,” Lerstrom said. “We probably will try to keep this going even as we get past the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Starting in February, the book club will begin reading Overstory by Richard Powers, a book about five trees that inspire a few people to address the destruction of the forest. The book club presents an opportunity for Luther alumni to be introduced to new stories, to have discussions with fellow alumni, and to learn new things, as Ellen Wilke (‘84) explains.
“Most of these books I wouldn’t have read otherwise,” Wilke said. “And so that’s what I’ve enjoyed; getting outside of my own favorites and learning something new.”

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