This year marked the seventieth anniversary of “Books and Coffee,” a long Purdue tradition celebrating literature, camaraderie, and good cheer during the long, cold Indiana winters. Sponsored by the English Department and the Purdue Student Union Board, “Books and Coffee” runs every Thursday afternoon in February, with faculty guest speakers each discussing a featured book. In years past, attendees enjoyed coffee and other refreshments as they learned more about a book that had been making a splash in contemporary popular culture. During each event, participants could enter a raffle to win branded merchandise or even a free copy of the book. All books selected for the program were available for purchase at both Von’s Book Shop in West Lafayette and Second Flight Books in Lafayette.
Week one of this year’s program featured Professor Angelica Duran and author Sandra Fernandez Rhoads discussing Mortal Sight, a Young Adult novel with strong allusions to John Milton’s Paradise Lost. In week two, Professor Amina Gabrielov spoke on Naomi Novik’s novel Spinning Silver, a fractured fairytale reimagining of the Grimm Brothers’ classic “Rumpelstiltskin.” The following week saw four speakers, Professors Marianne Boruch, Wendy Flory, Dan Morris, and Don Platt, all discuss poems by Louise Glück, the most recent winner of the Nobel Prize in literature. The final week of “Books and Coffee” included Professor Terese Mailhot and fellow author Tommy Orange discussing There, There, a novel following twelve different characters that “tells of the plight of the urban Native American” (Week Four).
This year’s format, however, was different from past years. With the continuation of the Covid-19 pandemic, “Books and Coffee” adopted a hybrid approach, offering limited in-person seating in accordance with campus guidelines while also streaming each event online for the public. To approximate previous years, those at home could grab coffee and listen as each event now opened with a reading and a video for the chosen book. Then, the speakers would begin their discussion. The livestream videos are still available on YouTube, making them accessible long after the event itself has concluded. With the assortment of visual aids used in these livestreams, people can easily engage in the presentations over and over again. Professor Gabrielov, for example, used PowerPoint to aid her lecture on Spinning Silver’s Russian and Slavic fairy tale influences, whereas Fernandez Rhoads employed a mood board (a digital collage or collection of images used for brainstorming or inspiration) to convey her insights into Mortal Sight. These visual elements help to enrich this year’s digital “Books and Coffee.”
This year’s program saw other adaptations as well. Its digital elements and visual aids have allowed students to participate in new ways. Before the discussion of Mortal Sight, for instance, students in Professor Angelica Duran’s “Ways of Reading” class read sections of the novel as part of a Google Slides presentation. Even if students were unable to make it to the event itself, they were still able to participate through the use of voice recordings, earning their readings applause from the author herself. The presence of two of the four novel’s authors was another change that the digital medium allowed. Using Zoom video conferencing, “Books and Coffee” was able to facilitate discussion between Purdue faculty and some of the authors themselves, providing its in-person and online audiences alike with insider information on the creation of the selected book and also the author’s thoughts on its meaning. This helped reinforce the events’ mission: “expert commentary on a new book that is a vital part of contemporary print culture” (Books and Coffee).
This online format could be something “Books and Coffee” decides to continue in the future. According to Professor Duran, this year’s faculty director, using this format even when larger face-to-face events are once again possible would be beneficial because those who cannot attend in-person can still experience the event. She also spoke about how, thanks to the digital format, some of the speakers’ friends and family were able to join in on this year’s program for the first time, even though they live far away. “I am a big supporter of doing what we can to promote the arts and community,” Duran said. Increasing accessibility in this way can help broaden the reach of “Books and Coffee,” enabling the English Department to share literature with an even broader audience.
Overall, this year’s “Books and Coffee” may have been different than in the past, but it fulfilled the same goal. More accessible than ever, it offers new format possibilities so that the seventy-first program can continue to spread the word with both students and those beyond Purdue.
Fayth Schutter is double majoring in Professional Writing and Mass Communication at Purdue University.
“Books and Coffee 2021 // Purdue College of Liberal Arts.” Purdue College of Liberal Arts, cla.purdue.edu/academic/english/bookscoffee/index.html.
“Week 4.” Purdue College of Liberal Arts, cla.purdue.edu/academic/english/bookscoffee/week4.html.