Bristol Bookfest to take on ‘Frankenstein’

Bookfest will take a close look at Mary Shelley’s iconic ‘Frankenstein’ this October

By Christy Nadalin
Posted 7/22/21

Following a COVID-delayed but ultimately successful launch in 2020, Bristol Bookfest will return in 2021 for a deep dive on another classic work of fiction: “Frankenstein; or, The Modern …

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Bristol Bookfest to take on ‘Frankenstein’

Bookfest will take a close look at Mary Shelley’s iconic ‘Frankenstein’ this October


Following a COVID-delayed but ultimately successful launch in 2020, Bristol Bookfest will return in 2021 for a deep dive on another classic work of fiction: “Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.”

Written in 1816-17 when author Mary Shelley was still a teenager, it has proven one of the most popular stories in literature and film and is considered the first true work of science fiction.

Much like last year’s selection, “All The King’s Men,” described as “Quite possibly the best novel ever written about American politics,” organizers carefully considered current events when choosing this year’s book

“While created more than 200 years ago, it has never felt so immediate as today, when humans seem on the verge of creating artificial life,” said historian Charles Calhoun, BookFest co-founder. “Just two things to remember: Frankenstein is not the name of the ‘creature,’ it’s the name of his creator, a young Swiss doctor who discovers the secret of re-animating dead tissue. And Mary Shelley’s novel is far more complicated than the popular versions associated with Boris Karloff or Mel Brooks.”

The birth of ‘Frankenstein’

The story of Frankenstein’s writing is almost as fascinating as the story itself.

Started when she was only 18 and recovering from the death of her first child, the story began as part of a parlor game challenge in a villa on the shores of Lake Geneva during the wet, gloomy “year without a summer” of 1816, caused by volcanic dust from an Indonesian volcano. “They didn’t have the Weather Channel,” said Doug Popovich, president of Arts in Common. “It was dark, crops were failing, all this stuff was going down, and they did not know what was going on.”

The house party, which included Shelley’s lover (and future husband) the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, their host Lord Byron, and Byron’s doctor John Polidori, decided to see who could write the best ghost story. Polidori didn’t do badly — he invented what became the vampire genre. But Mary Shelley outdid him. She crafted a frame narrative told in a series of letters: An Arctic explorer learns of a giant, human-like “beast” haunting the snowy wastes – and soon meets the much-battered Dr. Frankenstein, who slowly confesses his complicity in a tragic scenario of good intentions and moral failings.

“It is a tale of great psychological and philosophical depth,” said Mr. Calhoun. “It asks the basic question: what are we doing here?”

“Today we’ve already reached the point where we can no longer be certain where our own minds end and the minds of our computers start,” said Mr. Calhoun. “Rapid advances in Artificial Intelligence, robotics, and gene-splicing mean that we’re standing, like Victor Frankenstein, staring into an abyss. It might be full of good things. It might not.”

The program

Bookfest is far and away more than a shared reading; it’s a program designed to inspire, deepen understanding, and enrich community life, with a keynote address, presentations and panels by scholars in relevant fields — in this case, literature, history, bioethics, and film. The program also includes a themed dinner and closing reception. Related activities, including a film festival, are being planned by Rogers Free Library.

Dr. Jay Baruch, an emergency room physician on the Brown University Alpert Medical School faculty, will give the Friday evening keynote talk. On Saturday, Dr. Baruch will be joined by Alexandra Keller and Lily Gurton-Wachter from the film and literature faculties of Smith College as well as Declan Kiely from the New York Public Library.

Among the topics to be discussed are the medical ethics of trying to “improve” humans, the relationship of the Frankenstein story to 19th-century debates on slavery and 21st-century ones on climate crisis, Mary Shelley’s feminism, and her relationship with the Romantic poets, including Percy Shelley and Lord Byron.

“We’re proud that Rogers Free Library is continuing to collaborate in this Bristol-grown humanities program,” said Library Director Ryan Brennan. The library has copies of the novel, the iconic 1931 film, other movies based on the Frankenstein story, and Mary Shelley’s biography.

Bristol BookFest is run by a volunteer Steering Committee and a dynamic collaboration of local partners, including the Rogers Free Library, the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities, the Friends of Rogers Free Library, Linden Place, Roger Williams University, Arts In Common, and various business and private donors. BookFest graphics and brand are designed by CC:S. On the Steering Committee with co-founders Joanna Ziegler and Charles Calhoun are Joan Abrams, Elizabeth Brito, Elisabeth Lavers, Douglas Popovich, Rebecca Riley, Renee Soto, and Amy Vitale.

“Shelley brings to life the monster we know best: a being longing for peace in solitude, the intimacy of true companionship, a respite from harrowing loss and its effects,” said Soto, a poet and professor of creative writing at Roger Williams University. “In these ways, Mary Shelley’s monster is terrific, because it’s familiar to us all.”

It’s amazing that a girl at just 18 — and who had experienced both great joy and despair — and would begin writing the story of Frankenstein as a party-game challenge, she added.

Registration opens Aug. 15

Bristol BookFest 2021 is scheduled to be held Friday and Saturday, Oct 2 and 23. The keynote and reception are free to everyone registering; the Saturday speakers’ program is $30. Registration opens on Aug. 15, but Charles Calhoun urges those interested to start reading now and to join one of the many book groups around town discussing the novel in advance. Copies of the paperback (1818 version) are available at a discount at Inkfish Books in Warren and at local libraries.

In addition to the free keynote and reception, recordings of all BookFest speakers will become freely accessible on the Rogers Free Library YouTube channel beginning Oct. 31 thanks to grants from the Friends of the Rogers Free Library, the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities and other donors.

For more information about the book, the event, and registration details, visit

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A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.