What is Love?

Whom do I love, and how do I know? How do I know if I am loved?

Audre Lorde, Selected Works of Audre Lorde. Ed. Roxanne Gay. Norton, New York

Audre Lorde

Audre Lorde praises, rages, turns a critical eye, desires. The poems are relentless in their observations of Black lives and loves. Lorde was a cultural observer who spoke passionately about the oppressive structures of race, gender, class and sexuality. She articulated the ways that, in the name of sameness, Black women’s experiences were devalued by white women and black men alike and how lesbian sexuality was threatening to both groups and could be used to silence her in both movements. In an interview with James Baldwin, she argued, “We need to acknowledge those power differences between us and see where they lead us. An enormous amount of energy is being taken up with either denying the power differences between Black men and women or fighting over power differences between Black men and women or killing each other off behind them.”

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Beloved by toni morrison


Beloved is a powerful novel. Upon finishing it, one student looked up and said, “I love this novel.” Perhaps the reason this student loved the novel so much is its insistence on the capacity for love and community, its belief in the possibility of healing. While Morrison focuses on the range of dehumanization of African Americans, from the image of the ceramic “blackboy’s mouth full of money” on the shelf in the home of two abolitionists (300), to the egregious dehumanizing capacity of schoolteacher who uses science as rationalization for enslavement and torture, she places the strength of community and the grace of self-love at the center of the novel. The novel is about memory, about how the past lives in the present but also the ways that the past can be healed and our bodies purified when we have a community toward which we can offer up our hearts.

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Changes: A Love Story Ama Ata Aidoo

Changes: A Love Story

This is a story about modern African women and their frustration at the status quo where women’s rights are concerned. At the heart of the story is Esi, an educated woman, unhappily married woman, and mother. Esi has a good job that provides the bungalow she and her husband Oko live in with their daughter. After Oko rapes Esi in a desperate attempt to remind her of her place, she divorces him and sends her child to live with his mother, essentially freeing herself from the traditional gender roles.

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Crime and Punishment Fyodor Dostoevsky

Crime and Punishment

Dostoevsky stands among the great Russian novelists and world writers. In his characters, the reader encounters the complexity of human thought and desire, the quest for understanding ourselves, and the perennial questions that mark human interaction. Dostoevsky’s ideas at the time of the novel’s composition were very much informed by the radical political climate in St. Petersburg, ideas which Dostoevsky felt were morally and politically dangerous.

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Don Quixote

Don Quixote

Don Quixote is often called the first novel. Despite the humor that suffuses the tale, it is a serious and even a tragic work. The laughter the novel provokes, and the distance combined with affection we feel for its noble yet ridiculous protagonist as he attempts to live out his ideals in a decidedly unsympathetic world, provoke examination of themes that students will feel deeply. Many of them, in coming to college, have themselves set off on a grand adventure. Like Don Quixote, they may be inspired by high ideals to advocate for causes to which they are deeply committed, only to find themselves met not with opportunities for heroism but by cynicism, bureaucracy, ridicule, and the insistent humdrum demands of everyday life.

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Packer, ZZ. Drinking Coffee Elsewhere. Riverhead Books. 2003

Drinking Coffee Elsewhere

It is impossible to come away from these stories not realizing the trauma of growing up black and female in Packer’s world. The stories resonate with the complexities of race, gender, and class and the way Packer’s characters must maneuver each one with stealth and grace and sometimes violence. Packer provides an unflinching perspective on the many ways there are to be a black woman, from girlhood to adulthood.

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Foster, Benjamin R., ed. and trans. The Epic of Gilgamesh. Norton Critical Editions, Norton, 2019

Epic of Gilgamesh

The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the oldest pieces of literature, and the character Gilgamesh is the first epic hero. The poem is full of exciting adventures, as the demi-god Gilgamesh (sometimes with Enkidu) defeats monsters and other-worldly creatures, but it is also a profound meditation on the meaning of being human; human achievement and limitations; power and violence; civilization (and its responsibilities) and savagery; travel and homecoming; youth and age; suffering and maturity; knowledge, wisdom and understanding; the fear of death and appeal of eternal life; the duties of a good leader; as well as friendship, fame, culture, sexuality, and love. Although the gods are present in the action, the story less a myth about the actions of the gods or a religious poem than it is about human behavior and the achievement of understanding and wisdom.

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Keirkegaard Fear and Trembling

Fear and Trembling

Many students will be at least passingly familiar with the Biblical story at the heart of Fear and Trembling, and for those who aren’t, the passage in Genesis is short enough easily to be presented or even read aloud in the classroom. Part of the impact of Kierkegaard’s work comes from the fact that although the story is not new, most readers avoid allowing themselves fully to consider the horror of what God has demanded and to contemplate the questions raised – specifically questions about faith. What does it mean to have faith in a God that would make such a terrible and incomprehensible demand? The text prods students to dwell with this question in many different forms, through the story of Abraham and a variety of other interesting characters such as “The Knight of Infinite Resignation” and “The Knight of Faith.” What IS faith? Is it admirable, or even possible? What is the relationship between faith and reason? Between faith and ethics? Between faith and love? If I am to be a person of faith, what should be my relationship to the finite – to other people, and to this world? These are questions with which many students are likely to have wrestled at some point in their lives.

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Fences August Wilson


Fences is a book about inevitability of change and adaptability. It’s about the choices we make when faced with the inevitable. But Troy is also a man in progress. His failings are human failings. It is a play about the enduring promise of family.

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Frankenstein- Or the Modern Prometheus Mary Shelley


Few students will not encounter Frankenstein without some preconceptions, as the character of the creature (if not the story itself) is ubiquitous. But popular culture versions of the story often exaggerate the monstrosity of the creature and minimize or even ignore Victor’s abandonment and renouncement of the creature and his responsibilities toward his own creation.

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Tolstoy, Leo, et al. The Kreutzer sonata and other stories. London: Penguin, 2008. Print. ISBN: 0140449604

Kreutzer Sonata

The Kreutzer Sonata raises important questions about the duality of human being as animal, governed by instinct and impulse, and spiritual, shaped by mutable law and tradition. Pozdnyshev’s story prompts readers to investigate this shared territory for the grounds of their own romantic relationships and provides a vivid physiological portrait of jealous rage. Tolstoy’s work highlights an often overlooked dimension of Beauty, its frightening capacity to inspire violence and self-delusion. While others exult the transformative power of love, music and culture in transfiguring human life, Tolstoy indicates that each may facilitate a transformation to a condition beneath the bestial. Pozdnyshev’s indictment of gender roles, sexual mores and so-called “high society” retains its power when applied to contemporary circumstances. While readers today will note great differences in our social relations, this text will implore them to ask which ones constitute an improvement, to what extent and at what expense.

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Love in The Time of Cholera

This novel is about Love and all its itinerant forms. Unrequited love. Platonic love. Romantic Love. Parental love. Forbidden love. It is about obsession and rejection. It is about the enduring nature of love and of hope. It asks difficult questions about what love is and who is entitled to it. No one walks away from this text not thinking that love is complex and nuanced and dangerous. Marquez presents love as an illness, with many of the same symptoms of Cholera. And the way the characters compartmentalize who they love and the way they love requires that your understanding of the text transcend traditional considerations of what love is.

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This text raises very directly questions about the role of women in society, about the place of war, and about the role of sexual desire both in individual relationships and in relation to the state. Students are likely to sympathize strongly with the Lysistrata, who is far more than simply the leader of the sex strike. In her attempts to persuade the women to forgo sex (which, the play makes very clear, they enjoy as much as the men) and in her conversations with the magistrate, she reveals herself to be a talented leader and someone who has given serious thought to the proper administration of the state.

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Mama Day Gloria Naylor

Mama Day

Mama Day explores the concept of home in multiple ways, and in ways that the reader may not be expecting. This novel unlocks the way we think about home, and then forces us to transcend those beliefs. It is also a novel about faith and the life-altering effects faith of any kind can have on our lives. This novel makes readers question the very definition of faith and what true faith can accomplish.

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Euripides, Medea


This is a short, riveting text that takes students directly to topics about human nature in extremity – questions of passion, the relationship between love and hatred, justice and the most severe vengeance extending even to children. It is almost impossible not to react strongly. It is helpful in the classroom that that the beautiful but challenging poetic language and the stylized, unfamiliar character of ancient Greek drama provide enough distance for students to be able to be able to examine the most violent emotions and actions, creating the opportunity for compelling discussion.

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The Metamorphosis is about human suffering and is a perfect novella to introduce students to Kafka’s work. While the story can be disorienting in the beginning, as the reader progresses, they can relate to Gregor’s situation. The story is a complex narrative with multiple layers that explores variety of human emotions and relationships including, fear, frustration, disappointment, love, loneliness, suffering, meaning of death, and disgust.

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he Essential Neruda

Neruda, Poems

Pablo Neruda’s poetry is rich and varied, ranging from the romantic and lonely to the political to direct and humorous. His works seek to examine important issues love to the oppression that he witnessed in his native Chile. Moreover, Neruda’s poetry also sought to examine philosophical issues that focused on humanity. Despite the variety of poetic topics Neruda covered, his poetry has a unity of style that ties his diverse works together.

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aristotle nicomachean ethics

Nicomachean Ethics

This text is transformative because of the absolutely direct way it takes up the essential question of what it is to live a good life. Aristotle’s definition of happiness is challenging to the modern reader on many fronts, and whether or not one ultimately agrees with him, his arguments will compel students to articulate, refine, and perhaps profoundly rethink, their own positions. Although the highest form of happiness is determined to be that arising from contemplation, students of less contemplative natures can also find themselves in the text as Aristotle looks closely at many different types of human excellence, including for example the compelling portrait of the “high-minded” (often translated as “great-souled”) person, described in book four. This person is much concerned with honor and dishonor, recognizes their own greatness, assesses it accurately, and makes claims that “correspond to his deserts.”(1123b 15)

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Salvage the Bones Jesmyn Ward

Salvage the Bones

Salvage the Bones is one of those texts that force the reader to see the world on the other side of their comfort zone. Esch is unflinching in her observations, forcing the reader to go along with whatever she shows them, and daring the reader to pass judgment. It is impossible to come away from this story not understanding that the world is a complex environment.

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Anne Carson, If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, Vintage Books, New York


Using Sappho is a way to bring into the classroom themes around beauty, longing, loss and subjectivity. There are a number of ways to approach this text. One way would be to situate students in the middle of the fragmentation and rupture within the poems, as described above, in order to think through the jagged and jarring structure of the text, the ways of not knowing who a speaker is, and the silences that are in many ways louder than the actual words on the page.

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Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon, Vintage International, New York

Song of Solomon

Complex characters sit at the center of every Toni Morrison novel. She creates all her characters, these flawed and human people, the admirable and disreputable characters, with great empathy and love, and we as readers love them as well. She constructs the novel from a mixture of history, myth, spirituals and the supernatural that makes the writing deeply resonant. What is past is never past, as the ancestors are always present. In a Toni Morrison novel, understanding one’s ties to these ancestors and healing the traumas of the past brought into the present are integral to self-acceptance and moving forward.

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Plato, Symposium


The Symposium consists of a series of speeches about love given by Socrates and his friends during a drinking party at the house of Agathon. Having overindulged the night before in celebration of Agathon’s award winning play, the group agrees to pace themselves tonight by means of their speeches to the god of love. Phaedrus starts things off, followed by Pausanias and Euryximachus. Next, Aristophanes delivers his unforgettable origin myth, explaining our unconquerable urge to unite with our one true love as a literal seeking out of our other half. After Agathon delivers a beautiful but sophistical speech praising love, the dialogue culminates with Socrates telling the group about what he learned from Diotima, the woman who trained him in the erotic arts. According to this teaching, love is a desire for the good eternally, and it achieves this through giving birth, both physically and spiritually.

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The Awakening Kate Chopin

The Awakening

’Yes,’ she said. ‘The Years that are gone seem like dreams-if one might go on sleeping and dreaming- but to wake up and find- oh! Well! Perhaps it is better to wake up after all, even to suffer, rather than to remain a dupe to illusions all one’s life.(133) Kate Chopin Does free will exist? Who am I? What is love? The Awakening Kate Chopin Free Text “I love you. Good bye- because I love

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The Poetry of John Donne

The Poetry of John Donne

Community college students find Donne’s poetry both arcane and modern, both puzzling and satisfying. Complex human scenarios are described with language that is at turns colloquial or learned. Ideas are often constructed in extended metaphors called “conceits.” When these extended metaphors use obscurely technical imagery or make surprising, unexpected comparisons, they are called “metaphysical conceits.” Donne’s poetry invites students to inhabit the speaker’s mind, to follow his thoughts through the complexities of language and emotion in his investigations of love, society, and religion. The sample poems included are among Donne’s most accessible and exciting. As a result, they easily lend themselves to class discussion and written response.

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The Story of an African Farm Olive Schreiner

The Story of an African Farm

Students are likely to be both surprised and intrigued by the modernity of ideas and situations in the novel. If they are familiar with Victorian literature or culture or have some sense of it, the nature of the sexual relationships, Lyndall’s feminism, the complicated race relations, and one character’s decision to live as a different gender for a period of time, will likely challenge what they think they know about the period, not to mention any impressions they may have about rural South African culture (if any). The book raises questions about gender, sexuality, responsibility, child rearing and abuse, spirituality, the nature of work/labor, and tension between the natural world and man-made world. Long passages of interior thoughts, particularly those of Waldo and Lydall, provide ample philosophical meat on which students may chew. This is a novel that has the ability to transform through testing students’ assumptions and beliefs. Much of what it discusses feels as important in our current place and moment as Schreiner felt it was in hers.

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Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. Amistad (an imprint of Harper Collins)

Their Eyes Were Watching God

“Their Eyes Were Watching God” is an epic feminist manifesto. But it also appeals to anyone who is in search of who they are. In this era of the “authentic self” this novel is a virtual user’s manual for that very thing. Men and women will connect to Janie’s quest for authentic self and for the ability to make her own choices.

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To the Lighthouse. Virginia Woolf. 9780156907392

To the Lighthouse

Students may feel challenged by To the Lighthouse, as it is less of a story, and more an experience in witnessing the interior thoughts and feelings of a group of characters set against the same backdrop. Each character brings not only their own focus, but their own set of preoccupations: Mrs. Ramsey wants to provide certain experiences to her family members and guests, Mr. Ramsey wants to feel challenged and successful intellectually, Lily wants to be able to capture her perception in her art. Young James wants to feel loved and protected by his mother and to go to the lighthouse. The structure of the novel allows Woolf to explore ideas such as aesthetics and creativity, intellectual ambition, romantic love and other relationships, gender, and loss. The novel allows readers to think about thinking—how we do it, how we do it differently from one another, and how frustrating it can be, which could lead to productive discussions about metacognition.

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Zadie Smith, White Teeth, Vintage International, New York

White Teeth

Smith tackles major issues around race, culture, history and the influence of science and religion with humor and humanity. There are many questions and few answers in the novel. Through her characters and their complicated histories, Smith explores the tensions between 1) the roots of history and the idealistic dream of a multicultural melting pot; 2) cosmopolitanism and patriotism; 3) science and religion; 4) idealized beauty and self-identity; 5) eugenics and genetic engineering. The story is told through multiple perspectives in both the first and second generations of the novel. It is at once funny, satirical and earnest. Smith has an ear for language and sharp observations of human desire, fear and motivation.

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