What is the Good Life?

How do I live it and with whom do I need to associate in order to live it well?

Dubliners, Vintage Classics, New York
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Dubliners

These stories can introduce students to the Joycean epiphany, the moment at the end of the stories when a profound truth gets revealed to the characters. At the end of “A Painful Case,” Mr. Duffy “felt that he was alone.” The boy in “Araby” says, “I saw myself a creature driven and derided by vanity.” The boy’s realization is not so different from Jimmy Doyle’s realization of his “folly” at the end of “After the Race,” Little Chandler’s shame and remorse at the end of “A Little Cloud” as he sees the hatred in his wife’s eyes and understands his ineptitude in the domestic life he has chosen over his art, or even Gabriel Conroy’s in “The Dead” seeing himself as “a ludicrous figure, acting as a pennyboy for his aunts, a nervous wellmeaning sentimentalist, orating to vulgarians and idealizing his own clownish lusts, the pitiable fatuous fellow he had caught a glimpse of in the mirror.”

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Pride and Prejudice Jane Austen
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Pride and Prejudice

There are many timeless questions addressed in this text. Part of the human experience is learning how to read the world around you, and to make decisions about relationships. Who is truthful, who is deceitful? Who is good, who is dangerous? Who is supportive, who is threatening? These decisions, in modern society, are also key when making decisions about love and marriage. In our lives, we all must confront our pride and our prejudice at some point and learn to see people for who they are.

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Things Fall Apart_Achebe, Chinua
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Things Fall Apart

Okonkwo is a man among men. Raised by a “weak” father, he is determined to undo the legacy of laziness his father left behind. Okonkwo works hard, has the best farm in the land, many wives and multiple children. He is, according to his village, a successful man. He is also one of the most feared men. His prowess on the battlefield is no less impressive. When he accidentally kills the son of a village elder, he is banished to the land of his mother for seven years. When he returns to his village, everything has changed. The colonialists have arrived and everything he knows about manhood and what it means to be a leader has changed. On one hand, he is angered and embarrassed by his village’s refusal to fight the colonial forces; on the other he is subject to the indignities of their rule on a daily basis. Ultimately he takes his own life.

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Fences August Wilson
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Fences

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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“Sonny’s Blues” is also included in Baldwin’s story collection Going to Meet the Man, Vintage International, New York
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Sonny’s Blues

The emotional lives of these characters is the story’s most immediate concern and the text takes seriously the question of how we endure loss. As well, it is impossible to understand these characters fully without understanding the racial context of their lives. They grew up in Harlem, and they, as the narrator observes of his high school students, “were growing up with a rush and their heads bumped abruptly against the low ceiling of their actual possibilities” (328). The suffering that the narrator and Sonny endure is individual as well as generational.

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Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. Amistad (an imprint of Harper Collins)
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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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Changes: A Love Story Ama Ata Aidoo
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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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Audre Lorde, Selected Works of Audre Lorde. Ed. Roxanne Gay. Norton, New York
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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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The Odyssey Homer
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Odyssey

Discussing The Odyssey is a productive way to begin an undergraduate education. Many first-year students see themselves in Telemachus, who is struggling to find his identity and to establish himself in the world as an independent person, worthy of respect and happiness. This text helps frame the transformative experience of beginning college through a narrative following the personal transformations of many characters. The text productivity raises questions about the conflict between safety and freedom, desire and devotion and helps students weigh their competing priorities as they begin their college journey.

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Plutarch Parallel Lives
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Parallel Lives (Selections)

Caesar is a truly compelling character, whose career brought Rome almost to the pinnacle of its power, but also brought about the end of the republic and the beginning of empire. Through the prism of his story, students can consider a variety of questions about power, ambition, various forms of government, and the relationship of people and their leaders, that bear upon our current political situation. The narrative draws students in more effectively than most more abstract philosophical consideration of such issues, while the historical distance can also allow a more thoughtful consideration and exchange of views around these issues than may be possible when discussing the contemporary situation more directly.

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mary wollstonecraft a vindication of the rights of woman
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A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

In A Vindication, Wollstonecraft asks questions that are part of the human experience. How does who I am affect how I am viewed in the world in which I live? What has shaped others’ understanding of who I am? What are the assumptions, biases, misconceptions that impact how the world sees me? Wollstonecraft’s text examines the repeating social patterns that have led to the belief that women do not possess reason and that their singular purpose and potential is to be attractive and beautiful.

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F.H.T. Willetts translation, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 1991 (ISBN 978-0374534684)
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One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

This book was transformational upon publication because of the way in which it exposed the harsh reality of the lives of even unexceptional political prisoners in the huge system of camps that made up the Soviet Gulag. Along with Solzhenitsyn’s other writings and the works of other artists coming out of the Soviet Union, it contributed to the eventual demise of that system. This can be a good place to start, but for most students the truly transformative aspect of the work will be the questions it raises rather than the abuses it uncovers.

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gloria anzaldúa borderlands
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Borderlands / La Frontera

This can be an intimidating text, especially for the non-Spanish speaker. Ask students to observe how they respond to the shift between Spanish and English throughout the text. Anzaldúa’s flow between languages is more than code switching. It is an enactment of mestiza consciousness. The same is true for the flow between genres in the text. Some students will feel empowered by Anzaldúa’s flow between languages and genres. Other students will feel they are missing something by not being able to interpret the Spanish sections. Other students may have a response to Anzaldúa’s counter narrative to U.S. narratives of exceptionalism, heroism, freedom, opportunity, and individualism.

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LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA
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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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Tao Te Ching
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Tao Te Ching

The Dao De Jing is attributed to Laozi, translated as “The Old Master,” a possibly fictitious legendary contemporary of Confucius. As such, the Dao De Jing is a response to Confucianism and its emphasis on social relations grounded in the family to create a harmonious cosmos. Daoism criticizes Confucianism here by claiming that the exclusive focus on proper social relations is an attempt to fix and concretize dao in a way that will ultimately backfire and miss the mark. While both Confucianism and Daoism emphasize wuwei (non-action), Daoism seems to expand the sage’s realm of focus beyond the merely societal to include nature and the entire cosmos. Later, Buddhism would combine its unique features with Daoism to produce Zen. This text is fascinating to anyone interested in texts as a way of being in the world.

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Augustine's Confessions
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Confessions

Although much of the narrative of the Confessions happens during Augustine’s time in Italy, this book, so undeniably central to the western canon, is by a writer who was born, grew up, and spent the majority of his career in, Africa. Thus it challenges our conception of where such books originate and our preconceptions about the people who wrote them. It is often called the first autobiography, and presents a remarkable exploration of interiority – questions about the nature of the self, the will, the memory, the intellect, and the soul are central to Augustine’s investigations. Some students are immediately drawn to the beauty of the book as a work of literature, and to the intense self-examination it models.

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republic
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Republic

The Republic is a book of liberation and transformation. According to Dr. Simon Blackburn, “If any books change the world, Republic has a good claim to first place.” The Republic is the foundational text of political science and moral philosophy. The questions it raises regarding the nature of justice and its relationship to the good life are important for all human beings to consider. It may be impossible to find a notable thinker in the western or Islamic world whose thought has not been shaped in some meaningful way by this text. Apart from its world historical significance, Republic is one of the most meaningful texts to read and discuss with students of all backgrounds.

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