Living with Limits: A New “Let’s Talk About It, Oklahoma” Theme at Oklahoma City University, Fall 2018
Let’s Talk About It, Oklahoma (LTAIO) offers more than your average book club. The Oklahoma Humanities Council sponsors the reading program throughout the state, bringing readers together to discuss books on a theme, with the assistance of humanities scholars as facilitators. At each session, a Humanities scholar will make a 35-45 minute presentation on the book in the context of the theme. Small group discussions follow the presentation so everyone can talk about the book.
Free copies of the books are available to borrow on a first-come/first-served basis, but because of demand, we ask that only those who plan to fully participate in our sessions borrow books. You are also welcome to attend sessions with your own copies of the books or borrow only the titles you need.
Books may be picked up ahead of the fall series during regular business hours Monday-Thursday at OKCU’s Dulaney-Browne Library, Room 207. (The library is the tall building just southwest of Walker Center.)
About “Living with Limits”
The promise of possibility within one’s life can illuminate paths to follow and offer hope. As citizens of this nation, the old concept of progress and the openness of the future have long been kernel elements within the American Dream and the identity of European Americans if not other ethnicities in some form, too. But what happens when each of us realizes factors can call into question this optimistic perspective, when each of us comes up against obstacles within our personal heritage or life events in our culture? These might be genetic, socioeconomic, religious, gender, political, geographical, racial, even sexual orientation divergent from static cultural norms. Ultimately, we are all time bound by death, too, and the reality that illness or accident could end our existence well before a statistically determined average life span. One can’t help but give pause to wonder whether such limits represent the bad news about life. And too, how does one live knowing one is diagnosed as terminally ill? How does one live when prejudice, poverty, or trauma thwart our endeavors? In short, how does each of us live within the limits we find in our individual reality? This is the issue this series will focus on.
Whether it be Shakespeare’s Lear looking into himself as he holds the body of his daughter Cordelia or Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich questioning the efficacy of his own life as he realizes that he is going to die, great literature has confronted us with our mortality, that not just people in general but each of us individually is defined by one certainty, that we are going to die. A set of outstanding reads will plunge us into the tensions of discovering and living with this fundamental limit as well as the myriad of forms that this reality can also exist in our lives. Perhaps we have to decide whether or not limits are paradoxically the grounds for discovering who we are, the meaning of our life. Do limits provide boundaries to rub up against about issues within ourselves and our world that challenge our understanding of who we are? Are they blocks or challenges? How do we negotiate them? Is genuine hope possible only when we turn from determinism, either optimistic or pessimistic, and realize we can be free in how we respond to the limits we find in our lives? We can deny obstacles or rage with anger, refuse to embrace what change requires, or accept limitations as the grounds for transcending what limits us. Change isn’t always easy, for it requires us to move beyond our comfort zone to freely face a future without certitude, with no guarantees for success. In this process, though, we can try to live with hope in spite of or because of our limits.
The five books in this series reflect variety in genre, from memoir to short story to novel, as well as in the gender of the protagonist and author. Different ethnicities and nationalities are represented. The list includes Pulitzer Prize winners and a Nobel Laureate, older and newer works, authors from different arenas of life. Characters confronting limits bind these books together though. Each challenges us to dive into the series issues and find points of connection with our human condition. Each book offers us the possibility to develop empathy for characters living with challenges that can approximate the ones we live with. As with any area of literature, the best books are the ones that depict life honestly and accurately, present characters that evoke understanding or even self-identification, and offer insights into experiences both familiar and unknown.
“Living with Limits” was developed for Oklahoma Humanities by Dr. Harbour Winn.
All sessions take place on Tuesday evenings at 7:00 PM in Room 151 of Walker Center,
Petree College of Arts & Sciences, at NW 26th & N. Florida
Sept. 4: Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air (2016)
Prior to obtaining his medical degree, Kalanithi completed studies in English literature, history, and the philosophy of science. His eclectic humanities and science background enriches the poetic yet accessible prose he uses to describe the process of moving from finding a job to finding a calling. He realizes that to have a calling, he needs to move beyond life and death decisions to explore with his patients and their families what kind of life for them is worth living. In confronting his own mortality, he recalls Samuel Beckett’s words from Waiting for Godot: “I can’t go on, I will go on.” Rarely will you be moved so deeply and feel such joy through reading. Presenting Scholar: Dr. Lisa Wolfe, Oklahoma City University’s Wimberly School of Religion
Sept. 18: Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)
In this novel Vonnegut juxtaposes and merges fantasies and events from his own life, as he says, “more or less.” Actually, it took him twenty-five years to come to terms with the disorienting effect of his presence at the fire-bombing of Dresden and be able to write this novel. Like Billy Pilgrim, the narrator (at times named Vonnegut) wants to write about the war without glorifying it, for he also is burdened with the napalm being dropped in. The satiric barbs and humor echo for Vonnegut his view of the glorified rendition of violence in war, an aberration that subjects people to enormous forces limiting the possibility to be an individual in the blind acceptance of socially acceptable violence. Unable to cope with his history, Billy time-travels to the science fiction world of the Tralfamadorians who are ignorant of the limits of death and finitude. Rarely has a critically acclaimed work been so deeply engrained in popular culture. Presenting Scholar: Dr. Harbour Winn, Oklahoma City University Professor of Emeritus of English
Oct. 9: Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (2004)
In the Pulitzer Prize and National Critics Book Circle Award winner Gilead, Robinson’s minister John Ames reflectively penetrates through three generations of family history in his diary as he constructs a long, meditative letter for his young son to read in the future when grown. In a sense, he is doing what Kalanithi may also be trying to do for his young daughter in the closing months of his life, searching for a way to communicate with his child who will one day mature to be able to read what each father has left. As a Congregational minister in a small Iowa town, Ames wanders through memories of his abolitionist grandfather and his pacifist father trying to understand how God and grace work in the world. Since we read this epistolary work, we are a surrogate audience akin to the son he intends to write for. He explores the degree to which he has freely chosen his ministry vocation or been carried along by family expectation. Fundamentally, Ames, lonely and unsure of whether he has been fair to marry a much younger woman and father a son, agonizes in language charged with spirituality about the transcendent and the material world. Presenting Scholar: Dr. Karen Youmans, Oklahoma City University Honors Program
Oct. 23: Nadine Gordimer’s Jump and Other Stories (1991)
A master of this genre, Gordimer says that the short story writer “sees by the light of the flash; theirs is the art of the only thing one can be sure of—the present moment. Ideally, they have learned to do without explanation of what went before, and what happens after this point.” She writes with a moral urgency of the institutionalized corruption that leads to personal betrayal and the terrible cost of racism in South Africa and other colonized countries in the region. One essential point she offers to the world is the terrible cost of Apartheid in her country. The cost engulfs black Africans, the white ruling minority, Africaners, white liberals—all. All are brutalized in a system that dehumanizes and diminishes the possibilities for human freedom. The rich variety of stories provides a myriad of ways to render the cycle’s themes. Presenting Scholar: Dr. Brandon Katzir, Oklahoma City University Department of English and Modern Languages
Nov. 6: Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (2016)
Note: may be rescheduled because of Election Day
This noveldramatizes the series theme in a historical narrative tracing the arrival of Cora’s grandmother from Africa to Cora’s epic departure to find an alternative world. The novel generates a discussion of how ethnic minority classification can define and limit. The horror of the institution of slavery vividly haunts the world Cora moves through. Often compared to Jonathan Swift’sGulliver’s Travels, Whitehead says that this earlier work informed the structure of Cora’s journey: “Any kind of adventure story where someone goes from allegorical episode to allegorical episode, and escapes at the last minute, that sort of outlandish series of events actually works for an escaped slave.” Even though Cora’s possibilities seem manifold when she rides the rails yearning for the dearest currency, freedom, Whitehead challenges us, as our other four authors have, to hope for a time when one descends to the depths of the human spirit and emerges transformed, to work and dream to move forward beyond what diminishes possibility for all. Presenting Scholar: Dr. Tracy Floreani, Center Director
For Further Reading:
Being Mortal by Atul Gawande, 2014
The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs, 2017
The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy, 1886
The Farming of Bones by Edwidge Danticat, 1998
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, 1997
The Love of a Good Woman by Alice Munro, 1998
Sophie’s Choice by Styron, William, 1982