Established in 2015 by Professor Ruth W. Grant to create a space for Duke staff to engage with ethics and further their engagement within the intellectual life of the University. Fiction was a staple in Professor Grant’s courses in political theory and ethics. Now in its fifth year, the Staff Ethics Book Clubs program is both a staple of Institute programming and a vital opportunity for staff on campus. This year the program expanded to include Alumni Ethics Books Clubs, to promote meaningful conversation and build community for Duke alumni.
purpose in our lives.
If you have interest in starting an alumni or staff book club, please contact Margaret Krause at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information on support and funding. This year, the Institute is focusing on works that explore
Purpose is everywhere. Students are told to figure out their purpose and adults are trusted to have figured it out already—though it’s the rare person who never stops to wonder if they are doing what they are meant to be doing, if they are the person they are meant to be, and how else their lives could have turned out.
These books focus on questions surrounding purpose, especially characters who find, rediscover, or entirely reevaluate what they believe they are supposed to do. Characters wonder who they are and what they want out of life, whether they’ve made a wrong turn, or even whether their wrong turn made them into the person they are. The books prompt us to reflect on what it means to have a purpose, to be the kind of person that one wants to be—even if that person is not the person one might have expected.
KENAN INSTITUTE FOR ETHICS' RECOMMENDED READING ON PURPOSE (2021-2022)
Light from Uncommon Stars, Ryka Aoki
The apparently incompatible elements of this fantasy blend the beauty of violin, alien invaders, selling one’s soul for talent, queer and racial identities, and descriptions of food in Los Angeles. Out of this complicated setting emerge stories of what intrinsically motivates us and how we balance what we love with what we expect ourselves to do or to be.
Having and Being Had, Eula Biss
This extended meditation on the nature of what it means to own property steps very carefully through the decisions and tradeoffs we make in our everyday lives. Biss purchases a house and takes the reader through what that means for her, how what we own affects the kind of person we are, what we learn to live for and take for granted, and what tradeoffs our ownership entails.
No Cure for Being Human, and Other Truths I Need to Hear, Kate Bowler
Bowler—a professor at Duke—was diagnosed with late-stage cancer in her thirties and given a very poor prognosis, as she recounts in her earlier Everything Happens for a Reason, and Other Lies I Have Loved. In this followup, she further describes some of what she went through and how she came to understand the role of the cancer, and its diagnosis and treatment, as part of life more generally. She considers how cancer helped her to understand truths about her life—about all of our lives—that we all find it easy to ignore.
Sea Wife: A Novel, Amity Gage
A couple set off on a sea voyage with their two young children in tow, breaking out of their settled habits and depression, and breaking free of their land-bound ruts. But, after these initial jolts into a new vision of themselves, past strains and traumas resurface, and the book asks what it means to be the people we want to be and whether we can leave our problems behind us and reinvent ourselves.
Matrix, Lauren Groff
This wonderfully imaginative medieval history centers on a visionary protagonist, who, placed in a convent as an adolescent by her half-sister, grows into a formidable leader over an uncommon life. Her character develops alongside her convent in ways that show her increasing confidence in and understanding of herself and her place in her religious order.
Long Division, Kiese Laymon
This satirical and deeply serious book combines two interrelated stories. An adolescent in post-Katrina Louisiana begins reading a book about a character with his own name, written and set before he was born, who then travels through time to solve a missing-person case and protect someone from the Klan. It’s an innovative interrogation of contemporary American identity, as a modern Mark Twain would have written.
Migrations, Charlotte McConaghy
In a near future with mass animal extinction, a scientist follows the last migration of the Arctic terns, wandering, as we slowly learn that she has done since she was young. She adapts to life on a ship, writing letters home, as the reader slowly comes to understand that her purpose is not exactly as simple as it seems, and her wandering isn’t taking her away from who she has always been.
Moby-Dick, Herman Melville
What can be written about this book that hasn’t been written already? A classic firmly situated in the world of nineteenth century whaling, the themes and concerns of this masterpiece are timeless. And it is hard to imagine a character with a clearer sense of purpose—and with a more tragic outcome of that purpose—than Captain Ahab and the search for his white whale.
Beautiful World, Where Are You?, Sally Rooney
In what the Washington Post described as “an extraordinarily lucid, gorgeous and nuanced work about coming of age in what is indeed a broken world,” two close friends wrestle with what it means to have any sense of their own purpose in a world whose problems are very tangible. The question for them often isn’t what one’s purpose is but whether it makes sense even to look for one.
Mathematics for Human Flourishing, Francis Su
Mathematics is taught incorrectly, according to Su, in ways that obscure what is beautiful and captivating about it. Instead of thinking of math as simple calculations or formulae to be memorized, Su frames mathematics as the way humans think carefully through a range of fascinating and very human problems. If we want to understand what makes for a full and complete life, we can start by looking at the kinds of careful thinking and problem solving that mathematicians use, and that all humans should use to make for a full and flourishing life.
The Big Door Prize, M. O. Walsh
The predictable characters in this small Louisiana town begin acting strangely after a booth is set up in town that claims to tell people, based on their DNA, what their potential life station is. They find their purpose not in what they’ve been doing, but in what they’re now told they could be. Against that background, relationships are reevaluated, young people reconsider the world around them, and some come to appreciate the place they’ve independently made for themselves in the world.
KENAN INSTITUTE FOR ETHICS' RECOMMENDED READING ON RACE (2020-2021)
Notes from No Man’s Land by Eula Biss (February 3, 2009)
Talking about race—about racism, racial injustices and identity—can be hard. How do we start? Where do we start? In Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays, Eula Bill pulls us into a conversation about race through stories about objects, experiences, and regions of the American landscape. Notes from No Man’s Land connects us with a legacy difficult to come to terms with. It begins with horrendous acts that center on progress and revulsion and concludes with statements of contrition. By offering up her own apology towards those affected by racism, Biss invites readers to contemplate how they, themselves, might act in the service of its upending.
The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates (September 24th, 2019)
Born into the slave society of 19th Century Virginia, Hiram Walker wants nothing more than to escape the bondage that keeps him from his freedom. Only when he faces the possibility of drowning does he discover the thing that could liberate him and those he loves—his memory. A work of speculative fiction that melds together historical elements, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ debut novel shifts the narrative of history and reimagines the experiences of those subjected to theinjustices of slavery in America.
We Cast a Shadow by Maurice Carlos Ruffin (January 9th, 2019)
Maurice Carlos Ruffin’s debut novel, We Cast a Shadow, is a dark satirical masterpiece that examines race as a problem to be “solved.” In this dystopian world that is achingly familiar, a father will stop at nothing to protect his son, even if that requires an expensive “demelanization” procedure to whiten his skin. The novel reckons with the complicated nature of race in America and offers an unblinking cautionary tale of where racism might take us.
Heavy by Kiese Laymon (March 5, 2019)
Written as a letter to his mother, Kiese Laymon’s memoir lays bare his experiences with abuse, poverty, racism, weight, and addiction as wounds that haunt us, our families, our world. “Heavy” is a book about Laymon’s complicated relationship with his mother as much as it is a critique of America’s failures. His work is an honest, lucid witness to how our bodies lie at the center of our stories.
Thick by Tressie McMillan Cottom (January 8. 2019)
This collection, written with wit and candor and a captivating style, places Cottom in a unique position between academic and social critic. A book of great force, Thick is set to leave an imprint on the minds of Americans coming to terms with societal issues at the juncture of race and gender. Cottom weaves together her reflections on standards of beauty, acceptable social behavior and ways of being, and more, revealing many of the social inequalities that define America in this moment. At the same time, she leads us to question what we value as a society.
How We Fight For Our Lives by Saeed Jones (October 8, 2019)
In a memoir that explores finding oneself within questions of race, sexuality, belonging, love, and desire, Saeed Jones opens up about his life and the ways in which his relationships—with both people and places—shaped his identity and made him the person he is today. A beautifully-composed narrative of poetic prose, “How We Fight For Our Lives” provides a voice for what it means to be Black and queer in America.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett (June 2, 2020)
Twin sisters Stella and Desiree grew up in small Louisiana town where racism shaped how they see themselves and eventually how the world sees them. Running away from their past to reinvent themselves in New Orleans at sixteen, the two sisters find very different paths: “Stella became white and Desiree married the darkest man she could find.” A complex story of race, sexuality, and identity, “The Vanishing Half”, grapples with the weight of history, racism and violence in families, in relationships and in decades of choices.
The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom (August 13, 2019)
Sarah M. Broom’s memoir uses her childhood home as a means to understand her family’s history and perhaps our own collective memory. The “yellow house” is a physical manifestation of their complex lives of pride and shame living and loving in a long neglected community in New Orleans East. With keen authority, Broom traces decades of raced and classed inequalities made raw by Hurricane Katrina; but she ultimately leaves us with the hopeful power of place and family in the midst of dispossession and destruction.
Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi (January 21, 2020)
Riot Baby is a book of fury. Kev, the titular “riot baby,” is born amidst the brutal Rodney King riots and grows up trapped by a State system that criminalizes blackness. His sister, Ella, can mysteriously fly, mindread, time travel and see the future, a future where revolution is possible. The unremitting pace of Onyebuchi’s storytelling is an analogy for our unbearable history of racial injustice that makes the Black experience so violent and treacherous. And yet, the compact novella leaves us with a sliver of hope for a future that can reside in rage.
The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead (July 16, 2019)
Following on the heels of the acclaimed The Underground Railroad, Whitehead turns his unwavering gaze to craft a devastating story of two black boys sentenced to a reform school in 1960s Florida. Based on true accounts, Colson Whitehead confronts the shameful history of institutionalized violence and abuse that traumatized thousands of children in the Jim Crow South. Told with an unflinching brutality, The Nickel Boys forces us to consider what we have often tried to forget and to reckon with what that means for us today.
Hitting A Straight Lick With A Crooked Stick by Zora Neale Hurston (January 14, 2020)
This remarkable anthology of Zora Neale Hurston’s short stories, mostly written in the 1920’s, includes eight “lost” stories published here for the first time. Written with a deft command of regional dialects, the work might best be read aloud to provide a lush peek into African American life and culture during the Harlem Renaissance. Though her wit and sharp commentary on themes of love, race, independence, migration and social class are very much situated in a particular place and time, they have much to reveal to us about our world today.
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (May 2, 2019)
The first black female recipient of the Book Prize (2019), Bernadine Evaristo uses the distinct stories of twelve characters to span the intersections of Black womanhood and British identity in “Girl, Woman, Other”. Evaristo’s gift for unconventional syntax, voice, and structure allow the form as much as the words to convey what it means for women, families and friends to live, love, and survive in the contemporary Black British experience.
Salvage The Bones by Jesmyn Ward (April 1, 2012)
Winner of the 2011 National Book Award for Fiction, Salvage the Bones tells the story of a rural Mississippi family enduring Hurricane Katrina as much as the poverty, sexual abuse and violence that enveloped their lives before the storm. 15 years old and pregnant, Esch, navigates her motherless world clinging to the love of her three brothers as they prepare for the impending storm. Salvage the Bones is tough but beautiful read full of biting cruelties, sacrifice, and survival.
Dominicana by Angie Cruz (September 3, 2019)
Fifteen year-old Ana marries a much older man to find “money and papers” in America at the behest of her family desperate to escape their life of poverty in the Dominican Republic in the early 1960’s. But the dirty walk-up, the isolation, and the abuse she endures with her new husband, Juan Ruiz, is far from the American dream she had imagined in New York. When Juan returns to the Dominican Republic to tend to business endeavors, Ana finds herself and a new freedom that gives her hope for a different life. An immigrant story of identity, resilience and love, Dominica reveals how aspirations lead you to unexpected places.
A Good Neighborhood by Therese Anne Fowler (March 10, 2020)
“A Good Neighborhood” might just be valuable for what it lacks, providing a point of departure to consider what that reveals to us about race in America. The story tries to explore our homes and neighbors as places of both racial cohesion and tension, but the one dimensional black characters and simplified representation of racism reveals more about how whiteness limits understanding of racial oppression and what that might mean for white authors writing about race. “A Good Neighborhood” is fodder for rich discussion for what we often miss with the best of intentions.