Unbound: Reading Without Limits

Bill Kerwin talks to students during his "Unbound: Reading Without Limits" Honors course.
Bill Kerwin, an associate professor of English and affiliate faculty in the Honors College, is one of four professors who teach the Honors “Unbound: Reading Without Limits” course. The class was developed in partnership with the Unbound Book Festival. Photo by Logan Jackson.

The University of Missouri Honors College has a variety of important partnerships across campus and throughout the Columbia community. One of the more unique collaborations is with the Unbound Book Festival.

A staple in Columbia since 2016, the Unbound Book Festival welcomes world-class authors to mid-Missouri to discuss their books, their work and their life. The goal of the festival is to bring together participants to create diverse communities and inspire a life-long love of books and reading. In 2017, the Honors College began offering a 1-credit hour course – “Unbound: Reading Without Limits” – which allows Honors students to dive deeper into a variety of writing styles, including books written by the keynote speaker.

That tradition is still going strong in 2024.

“All of us at Mizzou – students, faculty and staff – are so fortunate to have this lively, engaging and completely free festival in our midst,” said Catherine Rymph, dean of the Honors College. “This festival is a great opportunity for anyone who enjoys reading, writing or just listening to smart, creative people talk about a range of topics, such as discussions related to the influence of roleplaying games on the creative process, how cookbook authors pair personal stories and mouthwatering recipes, and the importance of libraries for local communities.”

This year’s Unbound Book Festival will run from April 18-21. The keynote speaker is Emily St. John Mandel, author of six novels, including Station Eleven. As part of the “Unbound: Reading Without Limits” class, students will have the opportunity to meet with St. John Mandel to discuss her books and career.

“We spent a lot of time crafting the perfect questions for the keynote speaker in an effort to try to ask them something they haven’t been asked a million times before,” said Amanda Hinnant, an associate professor in the MU School of Journalism and affiliate faculty in the Honors College. “We all really admire the work of Emily St. John Mandel, so meeting with her will be thrilling.”

Bill Kerwin talks to students during his "Unbound: Reading Without Limits" Honors course.
Kerwin said he enjoys the small class size, which allows for deeper discussions. Photo by Logan Jackson.

Hinnant is one of four Honors affiliate faculty who teach the “Unbound: Reading Without Limits” course, along with Timothy Carson, an instructor in the Honors College; Gabriel Fried, and associate professor of English; and Bill Kerwin, an associate professor of English.

“Unbound has always relished our partnership with the Honors College,” said Alex George, the founder of the Unbound Book Festival. “It’s great for students to read deeply into the works of writers that they might not otherwise encounter, and then to give them the opportunity to listen to them speak and – if they feel so inclined – talk with them personally at the festival. I know many of the course leaders bring their groups to the panels of the writers they have read together, and this adds an additional layer of richness to the overall experience.”

Nearly 50 authors will be featured throughout the festival in a variety of panels, conversations and programs during the four-day event. One of the featured authors will be Sequoia Nagamatsu, whose book How High We Go in the Dark was last year’s Honors College One Read book.

“Engagement with authors at the festival has always been a highlight for the students,” Carson said. “In addition to whomever the keynoter happens to be, we always attend some reading or panel in which one of our authors participates and then meet them as a groupIt’s quite exciting! And students are able to formulate their questions for the authors in advance. That is an excellent learning exercise. I often say, ‘Put notecards in your books and scribble questions on them. You’ll want to ask the author something and don’t want to forget!’”

While each professor has a different methodology when it comes to the Honors course, all the students who participate are exposed to meaningful discussions and many different literature styles.

“It is indeed fun to read in this way, with these students,” Kerwin said. “The students are by and large not English majors — they are students who don’t get a chance to read literature that often in their current majors — so they are thrilled to be able to do so. The small size of the class means that they get a chance to talk and have a relaxed discussion. The course requires students read from different genres — fiction, non-fiction, poetry. Some students would never choose to read poetry, and they end up being surprised that they liked it. Not everyone loves every book, but overall, I think they enjoy the chance to do this. I know that I do.”

While students in the “Unbound: Reading Without Limits” course know all about the festival, George wants all Mizzou students to know that they are welcome to attend any of offerings. He said there is something for everyone.

“A glimpse of the past roster of Unbound keynote speakers shows that our speakers all have an extraordinary literary pedigree,” George said. “Having the opportunity to meet with those writers in a small and intimate setting is perhaps the most exciting and memorable opportunity that Unbound is able to offer students. Certainly, some of my fondest memories of Unbound have been tied up with these warm, informal chats. Every student will of course take away their own impressions from the encounter, but as the festival organizer, it feels like a perfect encapsulation of our mission, which is to bring readers and writers together to inspire a love of reading.”