A monthly publication of Virtues & Vocations, Good Read highlights inspirational and engaging books about virtue, vocation, purpose, and the state of higher education.

Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience by Brene Brown (December 2021)

“Language is our portal to meaning-making, connection, healing, learning, and self-awareness. Having access to the right words can open up entire universes.”

One reason University of Houston professor Brene Brown’s books are bestsellers is that her writing is beautiful. She presents data on courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy with words that feel more like a story than a textbook. Her latest book, Atlas of the Heart, is designed to be physically beautiful as well. While not quite as large as a coffee-table book, it presents itself as if it belongs in that category with its rich and colorful illustrations, varied font sizes, and full page breakout quotes. It is a heavy book to hold, and while easy to read, exploring 87 different emotions and experiences is likely to tug at readers’ hearts along the way. This is a book that offers a thoughtful opportunity for reflection in a gift-worthy package.

This Sacred Life: Humanity's Place in a Wounded World by Norman Wirzba (November 2021)

published October 2021

“Work is good when workers see how their efforts contribute to the thriving, beautification and celebration of the world.” –This Sacred Life, page 145

When I picked up Norman Wirzba’s new book, I expected to read a response to environmental crises like climate change and plastics in the ocean. While Wirzba is known for his work at the intersection of theology, philosophy and environmental studies, The Sacred Life is about far more than reckoning with the Anthropocene. The book explores what it means to be human and presents a vision for work, creativity, and relationships. It is a high view, where each chapter could be expanded into a full book; however, in bringing together history, philosophy and theology on issues ranging from transhumanism to exploitation to biology, Wirzba shows how these subjects are related, and provides a path toward flourishing.

No Cure for Being Human (And Other Truths I Need to Hear) by Kate Bowler (October 2021)

published September 2021

Kate Bowler’s latest memoir, No Cure for Being Human (And Other Truths I Need to Hear), intersects with Virtues & Vocations’ emphasis on moral purpose in and beyond one’s profession. This second book about Bowler’s life after being diagnosed with stage IV cancer at age 35 particularly engages with the ways her heightened sense of mortality and uncertainty affected her professional identity. As the book describes Bowler grappling with whether her historical research was still a worthwhile pursuit, readers are prodded to consider why we work and what good work looks like in our limited lives. The narrative is also particularly relevant to people working in medicine, giving a patient’s perspective that enhances the conversation around healthcare and medicine in service of flourishing.

While the book opens questions of purpose, it does so gently, through a well told story that is at turns deep and funny. This is a quick but thoughtful read.

The Way of Medicine: Ethics and the Healing Profession by Farr Curlin and Christopher Tollefsen (September 2021)

“Medicine has lost its way because it lacks clarity about where the way should lead. We no longer have a shared public understanding of what medicine is for, of what the end of medicine is or should be.”

In The Way of Medicine, Farr Curlin and Christopher Tollefsen offer a teleological approach to medicine. They consider the good toward which medicine aims and place this good within a framework of human flourishing and traditional understands of the vocation of physician. They contrast the way of medicine to the provider services model, while acknowledging that the lived experiences of physicians do not fall neatly into one framework or another. In the process, they discuss how the way of medicine provides an antidote to physician burnout, and consider how it positions physicians to deal with some of the most pressing ethical issues of the day. While not every reader will agree with all their conclusions, The Way of Medicine is a thoughtful and important discussion of the practice and purpose of medicine.

A Round of Golf with My Father by William Damon (August 2021)

published June 2021

Growing up, Stanford Education Professor William Damon believed his father had died in World War II. His father actually chose not to return, and established a new life and family for himself overseas. Over the years, there were clues that the family line about a deceased father was not true, but Damon chose to ignore them until a decade ago when his daughter called to share news of discoveries she had made when researching family history. That phone call led Damon to pursue the truth about his father. He details the process of his research in A Round of Golf with my Father.

Damon is best known for his work on moral purpose. Although one might imagine A Round of Golf with My Father as a departure from his previous books, he actually uses his family story as an opportunity to detail the process of “life-review” and how this psychological method for examining one’s life story can clarify issues of purpose and character. Rather than a straightforward account of Damon’s family story, the book unfolds with details about his father as examples of the concepts Damon has spent his career researching. It is a readable primer on the relationship between purpose, character, regret and gratitude that models a process of self-discovery through an engaging personal narrative.

A Burning: A Novel by Megha Majumdar (July 2021)

For the summer newsletter, we decided to highlight a work of fiction.

 “All I am guilty of, Purnendu, listen – all I am guilty of is being a coward.” – Jivan, p. 187

Megha Majumdar’s debut novel, A Burning, is classified in the “Mystery, Suspense and Thriller” category online, but this story is more about the three characters who narrate the book than about the trial at the center of the novel. As events unfold, each grapples with who they want to be and how they are viewed by society. They are faced with choices that test their convictions, commitments, and courage. While there are large, defining moments for each character, the book as a whole shows the ways in which the everyday decisions we make ultimately inform who we choose to be at decisive moments. On the other hand, the book also details sweeping systems of injustice so vividly that readers are likely to wonder, along with the characters, whether cowardice or courage even matter. This is, as labeled, a fast-paced book; it is not “light” summer reading. The fire in Majumdar’s novel shines light on some extremely dark places, and those images will remain seared in the reader’s imagination long after the last page of A Burning.

Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life by Zena Hitz (June 2021)

“If human beings flourish from their inner core rather than in the realm of impact and results, then the inner work of learning is fundamental to human happiness, as far from pointless wheel spinning as are the forms of tenderness we owe our children or grandchildren.” – Zena Hitz, Lost in Thought
Lost in Thought begins with Zena Hitz’s own story about feeling both useless and consumed with status as an academic. She writes about her journey back to a love of learning for its own sake, and then transitions to an examination of why an intellectual life is a good and worthy pursuit. She examines the purpose of learning through stories of individuals, from Malcolm X to Augustine. As she explores the intellectual life, she draws out questions of what it means to be human and what is good. This is not a comprehensive portrait of human flourishing or virtue but a deep dive into one important component of life–one which is easily neglected. For anyone involved in education or who feels tempted to measure worth by utility, Lost in Thought is a pleasant read that makes a good case for the rewards of an intellectual life.

How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be by Katy Milkman (May 2021)

Katy Milkman is an engineer turned behavioral economist who co-directs the Behavior Change for Good Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania with Angela Duckworth. In Milkman’s new book, How to Change, she tells a story about the first time she realized that perhaps she could change her own habits if she tackled her inability to change as if it were an engineering problem. Her success with this approach led her into behavioral economics, and she is now a leading expert in the field.

Because developing virtue involves cultivating habits, How to Change is a helpful guide to becoming more effective and efficient in pursuing good. It does not define moral purpose or character, but assumes that readers want to make changes that align with good ends. Indeed, at one point Milkman cautions that her findings on social conformity could be used for harm as well as good, and admonishes readers to practice discernment and moral courage if they sense others are using the tactics to coerce them. While not explicitly about virtue, How to Change provides practical guidance and insights into psychology that can help individuals who have reflected on moral purpose put intentions into practice.

Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future by Elizabeth Kolbert (April 2021)

At the conclusion of Under a White Sky, Elizabeth Kolbert writes,“This has been a book about people trying to solve problems created by people trying to solve problems” (200). While that summary is an accurate description of the uniting thread in the book, it does not capture the compelling narrative that precedes it. Under a White Sky is certainly looking at some of the massive problems of the Anthropocene, but it does so through stories that tie the large issues facing humanity to the everyday experiences of individuals who are baking fish candy to catch carp or pulling carbon from the air and transforming it into stone.

Many of the individuals in these stories are scientists and engineers. The US Army Corps of Engineers is a prominent character in more than one section of the book. At Virtues & Vocations, we often discuss the ways in which “good” engineering requires more than technical competence. Under a White Sky make a case for virtue in engineering without using those terms. Creating a technical solution to a single problem has a history of creating other problems, and yet, our future depends on these solutions. What are the habits of mind that must be cultivated if we are to implement solutions wisely? What does it look like to empathize with all stakeholders (not just human), to desire beauty, to pursue justice? How do we teach creativity and courage along with humility? What does practical wisdom look like when the tradeoffs are large and the urgency increasing? Kolbert does not answer these questions for us, but her latest book moves us toward asking the questions that matter most.

Vallor’s Technomoral Virtues: A Critical Update for Virtue Ethics (March 2021)

Review by Jolynn Dellinger
Visiting Lecturer and Kenan Senior Fellow, The Kenan Institute for Ethics

In Technology and the Virtues: A Philosophical Guide to a Future Worth Wanting, Shannon Vallor provides a critical, contemporary update to Aristotelian virtue ethics, deftly adapting that foundational ethical framework to the realities of our technological, data-driven era. Pursuing the question, “How can humans hope to live well in a world made increasingly more complex and unpredictable by emerging technologies?” Vallor draws on Western philosophical traditions, and Confucian and Buddhist ethics to offer a thought-provoking explication of twelve “technomoral” virtues: honesty, self-control, humility, justice, courage, empathy, care, civility, flexibility, perspective, magnanimity and technomoral wisdom. She then examines these virtues in specific modern contexts including social media, surveillance, and robots at war and at home, providing practical analyses to elucidate her theoretical and conceptual work.

Much of the conversation at the intersection of technology and ethics addresses the role emerging technologies play in our individual lives and in the evolution of society as a whole. This conversation, in turn, necessitates an understanding of the importance of our role as human beings in the creation, design, implementation, use, adoption and proliferation of these technologies. At every step of innovation, we have choices to make. Vallor’s book provides thoughtful, “technosocially”-informed insight as to the values and moral habits we need to cultivate to help guide those choices. I recommend this book as an enlightening read but also as a reference book and resource.

“Technologies are not stone tablets delivered from on high. They are malleable human creations that can be reshaped in the service of living well if our collective will demands it” (174). Reading this book can help us rise to this challenge — as individuals, as a society, and as citizens of a globally interdependent, connected world. So… what should we demand, together, to create the future we want?

Shannon Vallor, Technology and the Virtues: A Philosophical Guide to A Future Worth Wanting, Oxford University Press (2016)

Think Again by Adam Grant (February 2021)

Think Again by Adam Grant explores why and how we should aim to be flexible thinkers. Through stories and easy-to-read social science summaries, Grant makes the case that it is beneficial to ourselves and society for us to think like scientists, holding our beliefs humbly and with a willingness to test them, as a scientist does a hypothesis. He explains how to practice this habit of mind, and how to convince others to rethink their ideas without creating hostility. Toward the end of the book, Grant gives practical advice for how these ideas could transform our classrooms and workplaces, and why this would be good for all of us. Think Again, at the end of a year when “we’ve all had to put our mental pliability to the test” and when polarization continues to wreak havoc, offers an encouragement in navigating the present instability and a path toward defusing the charged landscape of polarized opinions.

“I believe good teachers introduce new thoughts, but great teachers introduce new ways of thinking.” -Adam Grant (page 203 of Think Again)

In Shock by Rana Awdish (January 2021)

“I knew instinctively that if pain of that magnitude continued, it would kill me.”

In Shock begins with a nail-biter: the pregnant woman on the gurney is in excruciating pain and crashing fast. On the edge of consciousness, she hears someone above her say,

“We’re losing her.”

“Guys! She’s circling the drain here!”

She has the out-of-body experience, sees herself from above, the medical team working furiously around her, the glare of surgical lights on metal table and ceramic tile.

And then she sinks below the surface…

In this beautiful memoir, Rana Awdish, MD, tells her story of becoming a dying patient, enduring multiple organ failures and major surgeries, and being treated by highly-skilled but emotionally detached doctors in the very hospital where she is an attending physician. Her experience with critical illness dismantles the understanding of disease and healing she built in medical school, residency, and practice. Before she could truly learn to heal others, she had to learn from her own fragile and resilient body what it means to be sick.

In Shock: My Journey from Death to Recovery and the Redemptive Power of Hope is a riveting and intimate medical thriller; it also takes a critical look at Western medicine, how we prepare doctors, and our current standards of care. Awdish calls for a new paradigm that places compassion and emotional connection at the center of the doctor-patient relationship, rather than cool professionalism and “safe” distance, a shift that acknowledges the humanity and vulnerability of both patient and physician. Her experience completely changed her approach to training residents and interacting with the community at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. Read In Shock for a vision of what healthcare can and should be.

You can also hear Dr. Awdish and her caring team on This American Life, recorded in June, 2020, after the initial, exhausting peak of COVID-19.

Mathematics for Human Flourishing by Francis Su (December 2020)

Highly recommended.

If someone said to you, “I have a great book on math and virtue,” you might imagine a dry, niche read that only appeals to the most devout math or philosophy enthusiasts. Mathematics for Human Flourishing by Francis Su is about math and virtue; however, it is anything but dry. Easy to read, funny, and clever, Mathematics for Human Flourishing not only makes a case for the beauty of math, it also promotes a view of education that is deeply human and inspiring.

In addition to explanations of how the way one studies math can cultivate virtues and promote things such as meaning, justice, and community, Su intersperses mathematical brain teasers at the end of each chapter, giving the reader practice at the sort of mathematical exploration and play he is describing. Throughout the book there are also excerpts from letters written to Su by Christopher Jackson, an inmate in a federal prison who contacted Su to ask for help learning math. This structure of the book, along with the content, creates a reading experience that nourishes the mind and soul as one considers what it means to be human and humane.

Those who have tasted beauty and its virtues will welcome practice as a way to taste it again and again. For when we experience beauty that stirs us, we long for more. Of all the virtues cultivated by mathematical beauty, this may be the most important one of all: the disposition toward beauty. … A disposition toward mathematical beauty is the engine of mathematical persistence. – Francis Su

The Tyranny of Merit: What's Become of the Common Good? by Michael J. Sandel (November 2020)

Highly recommended.

But a perfect meritocracy banishes all sense of gift or grace. It diminishes our capacity to see ourselves as sharing a common fate. It leaves little room for the solidarity that can arise when we reflect on the contingency of our talents and fortunes. This is what makes merit a kind of tyranny, or unjust rule. –Sandel, p. 25.

In his new book, The Tyranny of Merit, political philosopher Michael Sandel is worried about our democracy and sets out to excavate the roots of the all too apparent decline in both social bonds and respect in public discourse. In this quick and thoughtful read, Sandel draws upon his characteristically commonsensical prose to argue that a pernicious myth of meritocracy has eroded a sense of common good in the United States.

This book joins a series of recent critiques of meritocracy including Daniel Makovitz’s 2019 The Meritocracy Trap. Like Makovitz, Sandel takes aim at inequality, arguing that our meritocratic system is now sowing discontent even amongst its beneficiaries; however, Sandel is more squarely focused on restoring the common good and democratic politics. Populism, Sandel argues, is a response to the tyranny of merit and the misguided notion that social positions in our society are near perfect reflections of effort and talent. This notion is what allows the successful to imagine their success is of their own making–owing to their special, superior virtue. It also allows us to imagine those less no successful are conversely not so virtuous. He reminds us that most Americans do not in fact have a college degree. He notes, “by telling workers that their inadequate education is to blame for their troubles, meritocrats moralize success and failure and unwillingly promote credentialism—an insidious prejudice against those who have not been to college” (p. 89).

For Sandel, credentialist prejudice along with an ethic of success are core dimensions of meritocratic hubris. “To reinvigorate democratic politics, we need to find a way to a morally more robust public discourse, one that takes seriously the corrosive effect of meritocratic striving on the social bonds that constitute our common life” (p. 31). Here we see this book is also a poignant call for the moral renewal of civic life. Ultimately, Sandel makes a plea for humility as a civic virtue as an antidote to the meritocratic hubris at the root of our current political dysfunction. “Humility is the beginning of the way back from the hard ethics of success that drives us apart. It points beyond the tyranny of merit toward a less rancorous, more generous public life” (p. 227).