Chancellor Carol Christ tells ‘a beautiful story’ at Luncheon in the Library

chancellor speaks at luncheon
Chancellor Carol T. Christ speaks at the Luncheon in the Library event at Doe Library on Jan. 13, 2018. (Photos by Jami Smith for the UC Berkeley Library)

“I think stories are absolutely fundamental to every kind of human organization,” said Chancellor Carol Christ, as the featured speaker at this year’s Luncheon in the Library.

And Christ knows a thing or two about stories.

First off, she’s helping shape the story of UC Berkeley, as the first female chancellor in the university’s history. But as the speaker at the luncheon, Christ — a former faculty member in UC Berkeley’s English Department and a noted scholar of Victorian literature — focused on a different story: Mary Shelley’s Gothic classic, Frankenstein.

“It’s a book that I really love,” Christ said at the luncheon, in January. “I think it’s profound.”

In her 50-minute discussion, Christ shed light on the origins, context, and lasting importance of the influential work, which has gripped the popular imagination since it was published, 200 years ago. (As it turns out, The Bancroft Library has a first-edition copy in its vault.)

Frankenstein, she noted, was born during a time when galvanism (the idea of using electricity to contract muscles — and potentially stimulate life), grave-robbing, dissection, and the seemingly blurry line between life and death were taking hold of the public imagination. The idea for Frankenstein came about when Shelley was vacationing in Switzerland, and someone in their literary group — the poet Lord Byron — suggested a ghost story contest among them.

Annie Barrows ’84 was among the 230 guests who filed into Doe Library’s Roger W. Heyns Reading Room to hear Christ speak. A New York Times best-selling author (Ivy + Bean children’s series; The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which she co-authored with her aunt), Barrows spoke at the Luncheon in the Library in 2016. But this time, she was here to see the Chancellor.

“It makes me want to go back to school — bad!” Barrows said about Christ’s talk. Barrows, who graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in medieval history, is a Society member of the Library Board who is passionate about the Library and uses its resources when researching and writing her books. (“I could not do my job without it,” she said.)

In her talk, Christ’s enthusiasm for libraries became quickly apparent, too

“I was thinking as I was walking up those wonderful marble stairs in from the front doors of the Library how many happy years I’ve spent in libraries,” Christ said at the luncheon. “They’ve really been one of the things that I love most about universities.”

She used the Library extensively as a faculty member, for teaching and research. “Those were the days, remember, before the web, before Google, and before Amazon,” Christ said in an interview.

But it was as a top campus leader that Christ became more acquainted with the vastness of the Library’s resources.

“I think it was my time as an administrator that most deepened my appreciation of the Library and its collections, because it was then that I began to understand the range and depth of its collections and services, not just what it had in Victorian and early modern British literature,” she said.

After her talk, Christ — the first sitting chancellor to be the featured speaker at the Luncheon in the Library — answered questions about both Frankenstein and her role as the leader of the university with the same disarming alacrity. (“What keeps me up at night? The budget, the budget, the budget,” she said, in response to one question.)

“It’s so great to have a faculty member as chancellor,” said Paul Chapman, a Library Board member, educational consultant, and former principal of Head-Royce School in Oakland, who was in attendance. “The whole lecture was a beautiful story.”

The Luncheon in the Library is an invitation-only event honoring Library supporters. Past speakers include best-selling author Annie Barrows; lecturer, historian, and journalist Adam Hochschild; and dancer, singer, and actress Rita Moreno.

guests eat lunch
Chancellor talks with guestsGuests enter the Reading Room for lunch
Top to bottom: Clockwise from left: Maria Norall, second from right, and Burt Norall, right, eat and chat at the Luncheon in the Library; Chancellor Carol Christ talks with guests after her speech; and Friends of the Library, including Judy Bloom, find a seat to eat lunch in the Reading Room.