June 3, 2019

Reading the Spirit: A Book Club With a Difference

Elia Touesnard longed for a book club, perhaps with her Bahá’í friends in Ottawa. Inspiration came from some of the usual sources, and an unusual one: Azar Nafisi’s memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran, about an Iranian professor sharing literary enthusiasms with young women under cover of darkness (the Iranian Revolution had made such a meeting a crime). Meanwhile, Phyllis Perrakis was herself a University of Ottawa Professor, and in secret, she similarly volunteered to teach at the Bahá’í Institute for Higher Education (BIHE), helping Bahá’ís in Iran to get an education their country had denied them.

Phyllis helmed a meeting to acquaint Ottawa citizens with the Iranian situation, especially since our local universities were among the first in the world to admit BIHE students to their graduate programs. She spoke in April 2015 about Reading Lolita and about her work with BIHE; she glowed when sharing thoughts about books she cared about. Responding to Elia’s interest, Phyllis proposed a book club that would, as she wrote, “focus on novels that inspire and uplift while challenging the reader, deepening our understanding of our spiritual potential and the power of literature for personal growth.”

‘Reading the Spirit’ launched monthly meetings at the Ottawa Bahá’í Centre in January 2016, but its membership went well beyond the Bahá’í community. Phyllis was the torchbearer for its first two years, while continuing to teach in the BIHE program. I was lucky to attend the first gathering; I had never heard of Marilynne Robinson or her novel Gilead, Phyllis’s first choice, but I was astonished and everyone admired it. Phyllis and many others offered comments and questions that foreshadowed the rich Tuesday afternoon conversations that followed.

Two more Robinson novels – Lila and Home – were added to the club’s list. Three Louise Erdrich novels were included (Four Souls, LaRose, The Last Report on the Miracle at Little No Horse); also popular were Turkish novelist Elif Shafak (The Forty Rules of Love, Honor), Rohinton Mistry (Such a Long Journey, A Fine Balance), Kazuo Ishiguro (Never Let Me Go and The Buried Giant) and Bahiyyih Nakhjavani, whose fiction is inspired by dramatic events from Bahá’í history (The Saddlebag, The Woman Who Read Too Much).

Sadly, cancer was working its dark magic on Phyllis, though her devotion to literature and learning never dimmed. In February 2018, she requested that the meeting be in her home so she could attend. The group discussed its reading of Canadian novelist Mary Lawson’s second novel, The Other Side of the Bridge, and Phyllis made her own crossing to the other side less than three weeks later.

The torch has been passed, but Phyllis continues to guide and inspire us in Reading the Spirit more than a year after her passing. In May, we’re reading Canadian poet and novelist Anne Michaels The Winter Vault. I look forward to another afternoon of inspired and inspiring conversation, thanks to Dr. Phyllis Perrakis.

A longer and more digressive account of this fine book club, and the wonderful woman who steered it, appears at the author’s website: JamesHowden. com

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