Classic British and American Essays and Speeches
English prose from jack london to dorothy parker.
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
- An Introduction to Punctuation
- Ph.D., Rhetoric and English, University of Georgia
- M.A., Modern English and American Literature, University of Leicester
- B.A., English, State University of New York
From the works and musings of Walt Witman to those of Virginia Woolf, some of the cultural heroes and prolific artists of prose are listed below--along with some of the world's greatest essays and speeches ever composed by these British and American literary treasures.
George Ade (1866-1944)
George Ade was an America playwright, newspaper columnist and humorist whose greatest recognition was "Fables in Slang" (1899), a satire that explored the colloquial vernacular of America. Ade eventually succeeded in doing what he set out to do: Make America laugh.
- The Difference Between Learning and Learning How : "In due time the Faculty gave the Degree of M.A. to what was left of Otis and still his Ambition was not satisfied."
- Luxuries: "About sixty-five per cent of all the people in the world think they are getting along great when they are not starving to death."
- Vacations: "The planet you are now visiting may be the only one you ever see."
Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906)
American activist Susan B. Anthony crusaded for the women's suffrage movement, making way for the Nineteenth Amendment to the US Constitution in 1920, giving women the right to vote. Anthony is principally known for the six-volume "History of Woman Suffrage."
- On Women's Right to Vote : "The only question left to be settled now is: Are women persons?"
Robert Benchley (1889-1945)
The writings of American humorist, actor and drama critic Robert Benchley are considered his best achievement. His socially awkward, slightly confused persona allowed him to write about the inanity of the world to great effect.
- Advice to Writers : "A terrible plague of insufferably artificial and affected authors"
- Business Letters : "As it stands now things are pretty black for the boy."
- Christmas Afternoon : "Done in the Manner, If Not in the Spirit of Dickens"
- Do Insects Think? : "It really was more like a child of our own than a wasp, except that it looked more like a wasp than a child of our own."
- The Most Popular Book of the Month: "In practice, the book is not flawless. There are five hundred thousand names, each with a corresponding telephone number."
Joseph Conrad (1857-1924)
British novelist and short-story writer Joseph Conrad rendered about the "tragedy of loneliness" at sea and became known for his colorful, rich descriptions about the sea and other exotic places. He is regarded as one of the greatest English novelists of all time.
- Outside Literature : "A sea voyage would have done him good. But it was I who went to sea--this time bound to Calcutta."
Frederick Douglass (1818-1895)
American Frederick Douglass' great oratory and literary skills helped him to become the first African American citizen to hold high office in the US government. He was one of the 19th century's most prominent human rights activist, and his autobiography, "Life and Times of Frederick Douglass" (1882), became an American literary classic.
- The Destiny of Colored Americans : "Slavery is the peculiar weakness of America, as well as its peculiar crime."
- A Glorious Resurrection: "My long-crushed spirit rose."
W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963)
W.E.B. Du Bois was an American scholar and human rights activist, a respected author and historian of literature. His literature and studies analyzed the unreachable depths of American racism. Du Bois' seminal work is a collection of 14 essays titled "The Souls of Black Folk" (1903).
- Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others : "Mr. Washington represents in Negro thought the old attitude of adjustment and submission."
- Of the Passing of the First-Born : "He knew no color-line, poor dear--and the Veil, though it shadowed him, had not yet darkened half his sun."
F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940)
Known foremost for his novel "The Great Gatsby," American novelist and short-story writer F. Scott Fitzgerald was also a renown playboy and had a tumultuous life compounded by alcoholism and depression. Only after his death did he become known as a preeminent American literary author.
- What I Think and Feel at 25: "The main thing is to be your own kind of a darn fool."
Ben Hecht (1894-1964)
American novelist, short-story writer and playwright Ben Hecht is remembered as one of Hollywood's greatest screenplay writers and may best be remembered for "Scarface," Wuthering Heights" and "Guys and Dolls."
- Fog Patterns : "Yes, we are all lost and wandering in the thick mists. We have no destinations."
- Letters: "You would see a procession of mysterious figures flitting through the streets, an unending swarm of dim ones, queer ones."
Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961)
American novelist Ernest Hemingway won the 1954 Nobel Prize in Literature for "his mastery of the art of narrative ... and for the influence he has exerted on contemporary style" as demonstrated in his brilliant novel "The Old Man and the Sea."
- American Bohemians in Paris: "The scum of Greenwich Village, New York, has been skimmed off and deposited in large ladles on that section of Paris adjacent to the Café Rotonde."
- Camping Out : "Any man of average office intelligence can make at least as good a pie as his wife."
Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968)
Civil rights activist and minister Martin Luther King Jr., winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, may be best known for "I Have A Dream," in which he wrote about love, peace, nonviolent activism and equality between all races.
- I Have a Dream : "Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children."
- Reading Quiz on "I Have a Dream"
- Ten Things You Should Know About Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" Speech
Jack London (1876-1916)
Nineteenth-century American author and journalist Jack London is best known for his adventures "White Fang" and "The Call of the Wild." London published more than 50 books over the last 16 years of his life, including "John Barleycorn," which was somewhat of a memoir about his lifelong battle with alcohol.
- The Somnambulists : "[T]his archdeceiver believes all that they tell him. He reads only the newspapers and magazines that tell him what he wants to be told."
- The Story of an Eyewitness: The San Francisco Earthquake : "Not in history has a modern imperial city been so completely destroyed."
- Reading Quiz on "The San Francisco Earthquake"
- What Life Means to Me : "I accepted that up above me was all that was fine and noble and gracious, all that gave decency and dignity to life."
H.L. Mencken (1880-1956)
American journalist, activist and editor H.L. Mencken was also a very influential literary critic. His columns were popular not only for their literary criticism, but also for their questioning of popular political, social and cultural views.
- The Hills of Zion : "Dayton was having a roaring time. It was better than the circus."
- The Libido for the Ugly : "Out of the melting pot emerges a race which hates beauty."
- Literature and the Schoolma'm : "The essence of a sound style is that it cannot be reduced to rules."
- The Lower Depths : "The worst idiots, even among pedagogues, are the teachers of English."
- Portrait of an Ideal World : "All the great villainies of history have been perpetrated by sober men, and chiefly by teetotalers."
Christopher Morley (1890-1957)
American writer Christopher Morley was popular for his literary columns in the "New York Evening Post," among other literary magazines. His many collections of essays and columns were "lighthearted, vigorous displays of the English language."
- 1100 Words : "Let us be brief, crisp, packed with thought."
- The Art of Walking : "Sometimes it seems as though literature were a co-product of legs and head."
- A Morning in Marathon: "[W]e flashed onto the Hackensack marshes and into the fully minted gold of superb morning."
- On Going to Bed : "The happier creatures ... take the tide of sleep at the flood and are borne calmly and with gracious gentleness out to great waters of nothingness."
George Orwell (1903-1950)
This British novelist, essayist and critic is best known for his novels "1984" and "Animal Farm." George Orwell's disdain for imperialism (he considered himself an anarchist) guided him in his life as well as through some of his writings.
- A Hanging : "We all began laughing again. ... The dead man was a hundred yards away."
- Why Are Beggars Despised? : "A beggar, looked at realistically, is simply a businessman, getting his living."
Dorothy Parker (1893-1967)
Witty American poet and short-story writer Dorothy Parker began as an editorial assistant at "Vogue" and eventually became the book reviewer known as the "Constant Reader" for "The New Yorker." Among her hundreds of works, Parker won the 1929 O. Henry Award for her short story "Big Blond."
- Good Souls: "They are fated to go through life, congenial pariahs. They live out their little lives, mingling with the world, yet never a part of it."
- Mrs. Post Enlarges on Etiquette : "As one delves deeper and deeper into Etiquette , disquieting thoughts come."
Bertrand Russell (1872-1970)
British philosopher and social reformer Bertrand Russell won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1950 "in recognition of his varied and significant writings in which he champions humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought." Russell was one of the foremost philosophers of the 20th century.
- In Praise of Idleness : "The road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work."
Margaret Sanger (1879-1966)
American activist Margaret Sanger was a sex educator, nurse and women's rights advocate. She began the first feminist publication, "The Woman Rebel," in 1914.
- The Turbid Ebb and Flow of Misery: "My own cozy and comfortable family existence was becoming a reproach to me."
George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950)
An Irish dramatist and critic, George Bernard Shaw was also a socialist propagandist and winner of the 1925 Nobel Prize in Literature (which he didn't receive until 1926) for "his work which is marked by both idealism and beauty." Shaw wrote more than 60 plays during his lifetime.
- Preface to Pygmalion: "It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him."
- She Would Have Enjoyed It: "Why does a funeral always sharpen one's sense of humor?"
- Why Law Is Indispensable: "Laws deaden the conscience of individuals by relieving them of responsibility."
- The Art of Political Lying : "Considering that natural disposition in many men to lie, and in multitudes to believe, I have been perplexed what to do with that maxim so frequent in everybody's mouth, that truth will at last prevail."
- Hints Toward an Essay on Conversation : "This degeneracy of conversation ... hath been owing, among other causes, to the custom arisen, for sometime past, of excluding women from any share in our society."
- A Meditation Upon a Broomstick : "But a broomstick is an emblem of a tree standing on its head."
Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)
American essayist, poet and philosopher Henry David Thoreau is most known for his masterful work, "Walden," about living a life close to nature. He was a dedicated abolitionist and a strong practitioner of civil disobedience.
- The Battle of the Ants : "I never learned which party was victorious, nor the cause of the war."
- The Landlord: "If we do not look up to the Landlord, we look round for him on all emergencies, for he is a man of infinite experience, who unites hands with wit."
- The Last Days of John Brown : "[T]he one great rule of composition--and if I were a professor of rhetoric I should insist on this--is, to speak the truth ."
James Thurber (1894-1961)
American author and illustrator James Thurber is best known for his contributions to "The New Yorker." Via his contributions to the magazine, his cartoons became some of the most popular in the United States.
- The Subjunctive Mood : "Husbands are suspicious of all subjunctives. Wives should avoid them."
- Which: "Never monkey with 'which.'"
Anthony Trollope (1815-1882)
British author Anthony Trollope is best known for his writing in the Victorian Era--some of his work includes a series of novels known as "The Chronicles of Barsetshire." Trollope also wrote on political, social and gender issues.
- The Plumber : "The plumber is doubtless aware that he is odious. He feels himself, like Dickens's turnpike-man, to be the enemy of mankind."
Mark Twain (1835-1910)
Mark Twain was an American humorist, journalist, lecturer and novelist best known for his classic American novels "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" and "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." With his wit and grand telling of tales, Twain is nothing short of an American national treasure.
- Advice to Youth : "Always obey your parents, when they are present."
- Corn-Pone Opinions : "Tell me whar a man gits his corn pone, en I'll tell you what his 'pinions is."
- The Danger of Lying in Bed : "The danger isn't in traveling by rail, but in trusting to those deadly beds."
- A Fable : "You can find in a text whatever you bring."
- Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offences : " Deerslayer is just simply a literary delirium tremens."
- The Lowest Animal : "[W]e have descended and degenerated ... till we have reached the bottom stage of development."
- On the Decay of the Art of Lying: "Lying is universal: we all do it; we all must do it."
- Two Ways of Seeing a River : "All the grace, the beauty, the poetry had gone out of the majestic river!"
- Unconscious Plagiarism : "[P]ride protects a man from deliberately stealing other people's ideas."
H.G. Wells (1866-1944)
British author and historian H.G. Wells is best known for his works of science fiction, including "The Time Machine," "The First Men in the Moon" and "The War of the Worlds." Wells wrote an astounding 161 full-length books.
- For Freedom of Spelling: The Discovery of an Art: "Why should correct spelling be the one absolutely essential literary merit?"
- Of Conversation: An Apology: "I am no blowfly to buzz my way through the universe."
- The Pleasure of Quarrelling : "Without quarreling you have not fully appreciated your fellow-man."
- The Possible Collapse of Civilisation: "Modern warfare is an insanity, not a sane business proposition."
- The Writing of Essays: "The art of the essayist ... may be learnt in a brief ten minutes or so."
Walt Whitman (1819-1892)
American poet and journalist Walt Whitman's verse collection "Leaves of Grass" is an American literature landmark. Ralph Waldo Emerson praised the collection as "the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom" America had yet contributed.
- A Glimpse of War's Hell Scenes: "There was no exultation, very little said, almost nothing, yet every man there contributed his shot."
- Slang in America : "Language in the largest sense ... is really the greatest of studies."
- Street Yarn: "Come and walk in New York streets."
Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)
British author Virginia Woolf may be best known for her modernist classics "Mrs. Dalloway" and "To the Lighthouse." But she also produced feminist texts such as "A Room of One's Own" and "Three Guineas" and wrote pioneering essays on the politics of power, artistic theory and literary history.
- The Decay of Essay Writing : "Under the decent veil of print one can indulge one's egoism to the full."
- The Modern Essay : "The essay must lap us about and draw its curtain across the world."
- The Patron and the Crocus : "Be sure you choose your patron wisely."
- Street Haunting: A London Adventure : "Into each of these lives one could penetrate a little way."
- Writing for My Eye Only: "I can trace some increase of ease in my professional writing which I attribute to my casual half hours after tea."
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Essays on Poetic Theory
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This section collects famous historical essays about poetry that have greatly influenced the art. Written by poets and critics from a wide range of historical, cultural, and aesthetic perspectives, the essays address the purpose of poetry, the possibilities of language, and the role of the poet in the world. They are arranged in chronological order.
Check out our Learn area , where we have separate offerings for children, teens, adults, and educators.
The Mind’s Own Place
Sargent is reported to have said to Renoir that he painted “cads in the park.” And Sargent was of course quite right.(1) The passion of the Impressionists to see, and...
Cracks in the Oracle Bone: Teaching Certain Contemporary Poems
I’m thrilled to be presenting a lecture honoring Judith Stronach to many colleagues and friends, and I’m grateful to Ray for publishing this series of lectures by poets—I feel fortunate...
Sight-Specific, Sound-Specific . . .
Performance is a bothersome word for writerly poets. Performance art, poetry slams, and the like have made the term synonymous with theatricality, a recourse to dramatic, declamatory, and other tactics...
Female Tradition as Feminist Innovation
Even at this late-postmodernist moment, when self-defined innovative poetry needs to build on a long tradition of previous self-defined innovative poetry, such poetry still defines itself in opposition to tradition....
There is an invisible architecture often supporting the surface of the poem, interrupting the progress of the poem. It reaches into the poem in search for an identity with the...
The Poetics of Disobedience
For a long time I've seen my job as bound up with the necessity of noncompliance with pressures, dictates, atmospheres of, variously, poetic factions, society at large, my own past...
Use This Word in a Sentence: “Experimental”
In May 1998, the critic Michael Brenson organized a symposium at the Rockefeller Foundation in New York at which a number of people in the arts were asked to consider...
Someone is Writing a Poem
The society whose modernization has reached the stage of integrated spectacle is characterized by the combined effect of five principal factors: incessant technological renewal, integration of state and economy, generalized...
The Rejection of Closure
“The Rejection of Closure” was originally written as a talk and given at 544 Natoma Street, San Francisco, on April 17, 1983.(1) The “Who Is Speaking?” panel discussion had taken...
The Triggering Town
You hear me make extreme statements like “don’t communicate” and “there is no reader.” While these statements are meant as said, I presume when I make them that you can...
The Flower of Capital
(sermon faux – vraie historie) . . . and the old dogmatism will no longer be able to end it. ADOLFO SÁNCHEZ VÁZQUEZ The flower of capital is small and...
especially for Ebbe Borregaard (1) I am writing here about my poetry in relation to poetry. The writing had an occasion: for a few in San Francisco, where I read it...
Some Notes on Organic Form
For me, back of the idea of organic form is the concept that there is a form in all things (and in our experience) which the poet can discover and...
200 Years of Afro-American Poetry
Poets and versifiers of African descent have been publishing poetry on American shores since the year 1746 when a slave woman named Lucy Terry penned a rhymed description of an...
California Lecture: from “Poetry and Politics”
THOMAS PARKINSON :(1) I think we can start the lecture now. This seems to be old home week. We have Jack Spicer with us, as we have off and on now...
Vancouver Lectures: from "Dictation and 'A Textbook of Poetry'"
JACK SPICER : Well, I really ought to explain the structure of the three lecture/readings, more than is on the flyer that some of you saw. Essentially what’s going to happen...
Speech is the effective form of a culture. Any shape or cluster of human history still apparent in the conscious and unconscious habit of groups of people is what I...
Jazz as Communication
You can start anywhere—Jazz as Communication—since it’s a circle, and you yourself are the dot in the middle. You, me. For example, I’ll start with the Blues. I’m not a...
PROJECTIVE VERSE (projectile (percussive (prospective ...
The Poem as a Field of Action
Talk given at the University of Washington, 1948 Let’s begin by quoting Mr. Auden—(from The Orators ): “Need I remind you that you’re no longer living in ancient Egypt?” I’m going to say...
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40 Best Essays of All Time (With Links)
I wanted to improve my writing skills. I thought that reading the forty best essays of all time would bring me closer to my goal.
About the essay list
And if you still need more essay inspiration, grab the “Best American Essays” collection by Joyce Carol Oates or “101 Essays That Will Change The Way You Think” collected by Brianna Wiest.
40 Best Essays Ever Written (With Links And Writing Tips)
Writing tips from the essay:
5. Virginia Woolf – Death of the Moth
Many of us, at some point or another, dream about living in New York. Meghan Daum’s take on the subject differs slightly from what you might expect. There’s no glamour, no Broadway shows, and no fancy restaurants. Instead, there’s the sullen reality of living in one of the most expensive cities in the world. You’ll get all the juicy details about credit cards, overdue payments and scrambling for survival. It’s a word of warning. But it’s also a great story about shattered fantasies of living in a big city. Word on the street is: “You ain’t promised mañana in the rotten manzana”.
Probably the greatest film critic of all time, Roger Ebert, tells us not to rage against the dying of the light. This essay is full of courage, erudition, and humanism. From it, we learn about what it means to be in the process of dying (Hitchens’ “Mortality” is another great work on that theme). But there’s so much more. It’s a great celebration of life too. It’s about not giving up, and sticking to your principles until the very end. It brings to mind the famous scene from Dead Poets Society where John Keating (Robin Williams) tells his students: “Carpe, carpe diem, seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary”.
10. Christopher Hitchens – Assassins of The Mind
While reading this fantastic essay, this quote from Slavoj Žižek kept coming back to me: “I think that the only life of deep satisfaction is a life of eternal struggle, especially struggle with oneself. If you want to remain happy, just remain stupid. Authentic masters are never happy; happiness is a category of slaves”. Personally, I can bear the onus of happiness or joie de vivre for some time. But there’s also this force that enables me to get free and wallow in the sweet feelings of melancholy and nostalgia. By reading this work of Lopate, you’ll enter into a world of an intelligent man who finds most social rituals a drag. It’s worth exploring.
15. Zadie Smith – Some Notes on Attunement
16. Annie Dillard – Total Eclipse
This suicidally beautiful essay will teach you a lot about the appreciation of life. It’s a collection of personal, apparently unrelated thoughts that show us the rich interior of the author. You look at the real-time thoughts of another person, and then start to recognize the same patterns within yourself… It sounds like a confession of a person who’s about to take their life, and it’s striking in its originality.
20. Mary Ruefle – On Fear
This is a heartwarming, coming-of-age story about a young girl who waits for her breasts to finally grow. It’s simply a humorous and pleasurable read. The size of breasts is a big deal for women. If you’re a man, you may peek into the mind of a woman and learn many interesting things. If you’re a woman, maybe you’ll be able to relate and at last, be at peace with your bosom.
25. John Jeremiah Sullivan – Mister Lytle
I’ve never read anything so thorough, and lucid about an artistic current. After reading this essay, you will know what camp is. But not only that – you will learn about so many artists you’ve never heard about. You will follow their traces and go to places where you’ve never been before. You will vastly increase your appreciation for art. It’s interesting, how something written in the form of a list could be so amazing. All the listicles we usually see on the web simply cannot compare with it.
30. David Foster Wallace – The Nature of the Fun
Read that one as soon as possible. It’s one of the most masterful, and impactful essays you’ll ever read. It’s like a good horror – a slow build-up, and then your jaw drops to the ground. To summarize the story would be to spoil it, so I recommend that you just dig in and devour this essay during one sitting. It’s a perfect example of “show, don’t tell” writing, where actions of characters are enough to create the right effect. No need for flowery adjectives here.
A dead body at the bottom of the well makes for a beautiful literary device. The first line of Orhan Pamuk’s novel My Name Is Red delivers it perfectly: “I am nothing but a corpse now, a body at the bottom of a well”. In fact, there’s something creepy about the idea of the well. Just think about the “It puts the lotion in the basket” scene from The Silence of the Lambs. In the first paragraph of Kingston’s essay, we learn about a suicide committed by uncommon means of jumping into the well. But this time it’s a real story. Who was this woman? Why did she do it? Read the essay.
Slouching Towards Bethlehem is one of the most famous collections of essays of all time. In it, you will find a curious piece called On Keeping A Notebook. It’s not only a meditation about keeping a journal. It’s also Didion’s reconciliation with her past self. After reading it, you will seriously reconsider your life’s choices and look at your life from a wider perspective.
This one touched me because I also lived in New York City for a while. I don’t know why, but stories about life in NYC are so often full of charm and this eerie-melancholy-jazz feeling. They are powerful. They go like this: “There was a hard blizzard in NYC. As the sound of sirens faded, Tony descended into the dark world of hustlers and pimps.” That’s pulp literature but in the context of NYC, it always sounds cool. Anyway, this essay is amazing in too many ways. You just have to read it.
George Orwell could see things as they were. No exaggeration, no romanticism – just facts. He recognized totalitarianism and communism for what they were and shared his worries through books like 1984 and Animal Farm . He took the same sober approach when dealing with saints and sages. Today, we regard Gandhi as one of the greatest political leaders of the twentieth century – and rightfully so. But did you know that when asked about the Jews during World War II, Gandhi said that they should commit collective suicide and that it: “would have aroused the world and the people of Germany to Hitler’s violence.” He also recommended utter pacifism in 1942, during the Japanese invasion even though he knew it would cost millions of lives. But overall he was a good guy. Read the essay and broaden your perspective on the Bapu of the Indian Nation.
Let Mr. Orwell give you some writing tips. Written in 1946, this essay is still one of the most helpful documents on writing in English. Orwell was probably the first person who exposed the deliberate vagueness of political language. He was very serious about it and I admire his efforts to slay all unclear sentences (including ones written by distinguished professors). But it’s good to make it humorous too from time to time. My favorite examples of that would be the immortal Soft Language sketch by George Carlin or the “Romans Go Home” scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Overall, it’s a great essay filled with examples from all sorts of written materials. It’s a must-read for any writer.
Other Essays You May Find Interesting
The list that I’ve prepared is by no means complete. The literary world is full of exciting essays and you’ll never know which one is going to change your life . I’ve found reading essays very rewarding because sometimes, a single one means more than reading a whole book. It’s almost like wandering around and peeking into the minds of the greatest writers and thinkers that ever lived. To make this list more comprehensive, below I included twelve more essays you may find interesting.
Sam Harris, now a famous philosopher and neuroscientist, takes on the problem of gun control in the United States. His thoughts are clear of prejudice. After reading this, you’ll appreciate the value of logical discourse overheated, irrational debate that more often than not has real implications on policy.
Richard Feynman is clearly one of the most interesting minds of the twentieth century. He was a brilliant physicist, but also an undeniably great communicator of science, an artist, and a traveler. By reading this essay, you can observe his thought process when he tries to figure out what affects our perception of time. It’s a truly fascinating read.
Albert Camus – The Minotaur (or, The Stop In Oran)
It’s similar to the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam because it praises life. Seneca shares some of his stoic philosophy and tells you not to waste your time on stupidities. Drink! – for once dead you shall never return.
Bonus – More writing tips from two great books
The mission to improve my writing skills took me further than just going through the essays. I’ve come across some great books on writing too. I highly recommend you read them in their entirety. They’re written really beautifully and contain lots of useful knowledge. Below you’ll find random (but useful) notes that I took from The Sense of Style and On Writing.
The Sense of Style – By Steven Pinker
On writing well – by william zinsser, now immerse yourself in the world of essays, rafal reyzer.
40 famous persuasive speeches you need to hear.
Written by Kai Xin Koh
Across eras of calamity and peace in our world’s history, a great many leaders, writers, politicians, theorists, scientists, activists and other revolutionaries have unveiled powerful rousing speeches in their bids for change. In reviewing the plethora of orators across tides of social, political and economic change, we found some truly rousing speeches that brought the world to their feet or to a startling, necessary halt. We’ve chosen 40 of the most impactful speeches we managed to find from agents of change all over the world – a diversity of political campaigns, genders, positionalities and periods of history. You’re sure to find at least a few speeches in this list which will capture you with the sheer power of their words and meaning!
1. I have a dream by MLK
“I have a dream that one day down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification – one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today. I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together. This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day. This will be the day, this will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning “My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my father’s died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring!”
Unsurprisingly, Martin Luther King’s speech comes up top as the most inspiring speech of all time, especially given the harrowing conditions of African Americans in America at the time. In the post-abolition era when slavery was outlawed constitutionally, African Americans experienced an intense period of backlash from white supremacists who supported slavery where various institutional means were sought to subordinate African American people to positions similar to that of the slavery era. This later came to be known as the times of Jim Crow and segregation, which Martin Luther King powerfully voiced his vision for a day when racial discrimination would be a mere figment, where equality would reign.
2. Tilbury Speech by Queen Elizabeth I
“My loving people, We have been persuaded by some that are careful of our safety, to take heed how we commit our selves to armed multitudes, for fear of treachery; but I assure you I do not desire to live to distrust my faithful and loving people. Let tyrants fear. I have always so behaved myself that, under God, I have placed my chiefest strength and safeguard in the loyal hearts and good-will of my subjects; and therefore I am come amongst you, as you see, at this time, not for my recreation and disport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of the battle, to live and die amongst you all; to lay down for my God, and for my kingdom, and my people, my honour and my blood, even in the dust. I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm; to which rather than any dishonour shall grow by me, I myself will take up arms, I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field. I know already, for your forwardness you have deserved rewards and crowns; and We do assure you on a word of a prince, they shall be duly paid. In the mean time, my lieutenant general shall be in my stead, than whom never prince commanded a more noble or worthy subject; not doubting but by your obedience to my general, by your concord in the camp, and your valour in the field, we shall shortly have a famous victory over these enemies of my God, of my kingdom, and of my people.”
While at war with Spain, Queen Elizabeth I was most renowned for her noble speech rallying the English troops against their comparatively formidable opponent. Using brilliant rhetorical devices like metonymy, meronymy, and other potent metaphors, she voiced her deeply-held commitment as a leader to the battle against the Spanish Armada – convincing the English army to keep holding their ground and upholding the sacrifice of war for the good of their people. Eventually against all odds, she led England to victory despite their underdog status in the conflict with her confident and masterful oratory.
3. Woodrow Wilson, address to Congress (April 2, 1917)
“The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty. We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make. We are but one of the champions of the rights of mankind. We shall be satisfied when those rights have been made as secure as the faith and the freedom of nations can make them. Just because we fight without rancor and without selfish object, seeking nothing for ourselves but what we shall wish to share with all free peoples, we shall, I feel confident, conduct our operations as belligerents without passion and ourselves observe with proud punctilio the principles of right and of fair play we profess to be fighting for. … It will be all the easier for us to conduct ourselves as belligerents in a high spirit of right and fairness because we act without animus, not in enmity toward a people or with the desire to bring any injury or disadvantage upon them, but only in armed opposition to an irresponsible government which has thrown aside all considerations of humanity and of right and is running amuck. We are, let me say again, the sincere friends of the German people, and shall desire nothing so much as the early reestablishment of intimate relations of mutual advantage between us—however hard it may be for them, for the time being, to believe that this is spoken from our hearts. We have borne with their present government through all these bitter months because of that friendship—exercising a patience and forbearance which would otherwise have been impossible. We shall, happily, still have an opportunity to prove that friendship in our daily attitude and actions toward the millions of men and women of German birth and native sympathy who live among us and share our life, and we shall be proud to prove it toward all who are in fact loyal to their neighbors and to the government in the hour of test. They are, most of them, as true and loyal Americans as if they had never known any other fealty or allegiance. They will be prompt to stand with us in rebuking and restraining the few who may be of a different mind and purpose. If there should be disloyalty, it will be dealt with with a firm hand of stern repression; but, if it lifts its head at all, it will lift it only here and there and without countenance except from a lawless and malignant few. It is a distressing and oppressive duty, gentlemen of the Congress, which I have performed in thus addressing you. There are, it may be, many months of fiery trial and sacrifice ahead of us. It is a fearful thing to lead this great peaceful people into war, into the most terrible and disastrous of all wars, civilization itself seeming to be in the balance. But the right is more precious than peace, and we shall fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts—for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments, for the rights and liberties of small nations, for a universal dominion of right by such a concert of free peoples as shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free. To such a task we can dedicate our lives and our fortunes, everything that we are and everything that we have, with the pride of those who know that the day has come when America is privileged to spend her blood and her might for the principles that gave her birth and happiness and the peace which she has treasured. God helping her, she can do no other.”
On April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson of the USA delivered his address to Congress, calling for declaration of war against what was at the time, a belligerent and aggressive Germany in WWI. Despite his isolationism and anti-war position earlier in his tenure as president, he convinced Congress that America had a moral duty to the world to step out of their neutral observer status into an active role of world leadership and stewardship in order to liberate attacked nations from their German aggressors. The idealistic values he preached in his speech left an indelible imprint upon the American spirit and self-conception, forming the moral basis for the country’s people and aspirational visions to this very day.
4. Ain’t I A Woman by Sojourner Truth
“That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman? … If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back , and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.”
Hailing from a background of slavery and oppression, Sojourner Truth was one of the most revolutionary advocates for women’s human rights in the 1800s. In spite of the New York Anti-Slavery Law of 1827, her slavemaster refused to free her. As such, she fled, became an itinerant preacher and leading figure in the anti-slavery movement. By the 1850s, she became involved in the women’s rights movement as well. At the 1851 Women’s Rights Convention held in Akron, Ohio, she delivered her illuminating, forceful speech against discrimination of women and African Americans in the post-Civil War era, entrenching her status as one of the most revolutionary abolitionists and women’s rights activists across history.
5. The Gettsyburg Address by Abraham Lincoln
“Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
President Abraham Lincoln had left the most lasting legacy upon American history for good reason, as one of the presidents with the moral courage to denounce slavery for the national atrocity it was. However, more difficult than standing up for the anti-slavery cause was the task of unifying the country post-abolition despite the looming shadows of a time when white Americans could own and subjugate slaves with impunity over the thousands of Americans who stood for liberation of African Americans from discrimination. He urged Americans to remember their common roots, heritage and the importance of “charity for all”, to ensure a “just and lasting peace” among within the country despite throes of racial division and self-determination.
6. Woman’s Rights to the Suffrage by Susan B Anthony
“For any State to make sex a qualification that must ever result in the disfranchisement of one entire half of the people is to pass a bill of attainder, or an ex post facto law, and is therefore a violation of the supreme law of the land. By it the blessings of liberty are for ever withheld from women and their female posterity. To them this government has no just powers derived from the consent of the governed. To them this government is not a democracy. It is not a republic. It is an odious aristocracy; a hateful oligarchy of sex; the most hateful aristocracy ever established on the face of the globe; an oligarchy of wealth, where the right govern the poor. An oligarchy of learning, where the educated govern the ignorant, or even an oligarchy of race, where the Saxon rules the African, might be endured; but this oligarchy of sex, which makes father, brothers, husband, sons, the oligarchs over the mother and sisters, the wife and daughters of every household–which ordains all men sovereigns, all women subjects, carries dissension, discord and rebellion into every home of the nation. Webster, Worcester and Bouvier all define a citizen to be a person in the United States, entitled to vote and hold office. The only question left to be settled now is: Are women persons? And I hardly believe any of our opponents will have the hardihood to say they are not. Being persons, then, women are citizens; and no State has a right to make any law, or to enforce any old law, that shall abridge their privileges or immunities. Hence, every discrimination against women in the constitutions and laws of the several States is today null and void, precisely as in every one against Negroes.”
Susan B. Anthony was a pivotal leader in the women’s suffrage movement who helped to found the National Woman Suffrage Association with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and fight for the constitutional right for women to vote. She courageously and relentlessly advocated for women’s rights, giving speeches all over the USA to convince people of women’s human rights to choice and the ballot. She is most well known for her act of righteous rebellion in 1872 when she voted in the presidential election illegally, for which she was arrested and tried unsuccessfully. She refused to pay the $100 fine in a bid to reject the demands of the American system she denounced as a ‘hateful oligarchy of sex’, sparking change with her righteous oratory and inspiring many others in the women’s suffrage movement within and beyond America.
7. Vladimir Lenin’s Speech at an International Meeting in Berne, February 8, 1916
“It may sound incredible, especially to Swiss comrades, but it is nevertheless true that in Russia, also, not only bloody tsarism, not only the capitalists, but also a section of the so-called or ex-Socialists say that Russia is fighting a “war of defence,” that Russia is only fighting against German invasion. The whole world knows, however, that for decades tsarism has been oppressing more than a hundred million people belonging to other nationalities in Russia; that for decades Russia has been pursuing a predatory policy towards China, Persia, Armenia and Galicia. Neither Russia, nor Germany, nor any other Great Power has the right to claim that it is waging a “war of defence”; all the Great Powers are waging an imperialist, capitalist war, a predatory war, a war for the oppression of small and foreign nations, a war for the sake of the profits of the capitalists, who are coining golden profits amounting to billions out of the appalling sufferings of the masses, out of the blood of the proletariat. … This again shows you, comrades, that in all countries of the world real preparations are being made to rally the forces of the working class. The horrors of war and the sufferings of the people are incredible. But we must not, and we have no reason whatever, to view the future with despair. The millions of victims who will fall in the war, and as a consequence of the war, will not fall in vain. The millions who are starving, the millions who are sacrificing their lives in the trenches, are not only suffering, they are also gathering strength, are pondering over the real cause of the war, are becoming more determined and are acquiring a clearer revolutionary understanding. Rising discontent of the masses, growing ferment, strikes, demonstrations, protests against the war—all this is taking place in all countries of the world. And this is the guarantee that the European War will be followed by the proletarian revolution against capitalism”
Vladimir Lenin remains to this day one of the most lauded communist revolutionaries in the world who brought the dangers of imperialism and capitalism to light with his rousing speeches condemning capitalist structures of power which inevitably enslave people to lives of misery and class stratification. In his genuine passion for the rights of the working class, he urged fellow comrades to turn the “imperialist war” into a “civil” or class war of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie. He encouraged the development of new revolutionary socialist organisations, solidarity across places in society so people could unite against their capitalist overlords, and criticised nationalism for its divisive effect on the socialist movement. In this speech especially, he lambasts “bloody Tsarism” for its oppression of millions of people of other nationalities in Russia, calling for the working class people to revolt against the Tsarist authority for the proletariat revolution to succeed and liberate them from class oppression.
8. I Have A Dream Speech by Mary Wollstonecraft
“If, I say, for I would not impress by declamation when Reason offers her sober light, if they be really capable of acting like rational creatures, let them not be treated like slaves; or, like the brutes who are dependent on the reason of man, when they associate with him; but cultivate their minds, give them the salutary, sublime curb of principle, and let them attain conscious dignity by feeling themselves only dependent on God. Teach them, in common with man, to submit to necessity, instead of giving, to render them more pleasing, a sex to morals. Further, should experience prove that they cannot attain the same degree of strength of mind, perseverance, and fortitude, let their virtues be the same in kind, though they may vainly struggle for the same degree; and the superiority of man will be equally clear, if not clearer; and truth, as it is a simple principle, which admits of no modification, would be common to both. Nay, the order of society as it is at present regulated would not be inverted, for woman would then only have the rank that reason assigned her, and arts could not be practised to bring the balance even, much less to turn it.”
In her vindication of the rights of women, Mary Wollstonecraft was one of the pioneers of the feminist movement back in 1792 who not only theorised and advocated revolutionarily, but gave speeches that voiced these challenges against a dominantly sexist society intent on classifying women as irrational less-than-human creatures to be enslaved as they were. In this landmark speech, she pronounces her ‘dream’ of a day when women would be treated as the rational, deserving humans they are, who are equal to man in strength and capability. With this speech setting an effective precedent for her call to equalize women before the law, she also went on to champion the provision of equal educational opportunities to women and girls, and persuasively argued against the patriarchal gender norms which prevented women from finding their own lot in life through their being locked into traditional institutions of marriage and motherhood against their will.
9. First Inaugural Speech by Franklin D Roosevelt
“So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and of vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. And I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days. … More important, a host of unemployed citizens face the grim problem of existence, and an equally great number toil with little return. Only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment. Our greatest primary task is to put people to work. This is no unsolvable problem if we face it wisely and courageously. There are many ways in which it can be helped, but it can never be helped merely by talking about it. We must act and act quickly. … I am prepared under my constitutional duty to recommend the measures that a stricken Nation in the midst of a stricken world may require. These measures, or such other measures as the Congress may build out of its experience and wisdom, I shall seek, within my constitutional authority, to bring to speedy adoption. But in the event that the Congress shall fail to take one of these two courses, and in the event that the national emergency is still critical, I shall not evade the clear course of duty that will then confront me. I shall ask the Congress for the one remaining instrument to meet the crisis — broad Executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.”
Roosevelt’s famous inaugural speech was delivered in the midst of a period of immense tension and strain under the Great Depression, where he highlighted the need for ‘quick action’ by Congress to prepare for government expansion in his pursuit of reforms to lift the American people out of devastating poverty. In a landslide victory, he certainly consolidated the hopes and will of the American people through this compelling speech.
10. The Hypocrisy of American Slavery by Frederick Douglass
“What to the American slave is your Fourth of July? I answer, a day that reveals to him more than all other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mock; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy – a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation of the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of these United States at this very hour. Go search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the Old World, travel through South America, search out every abuse and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.”
On 4 July 1852, Frederick Douglass gave this speech in Rochester, New York, highlighting the hypocrisy of celebrating freedom while slavery continues. He exposed the ‘revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy’ of slavery which had gone unabolished amidst the comparatively obscene celebration of independence and liberty with his potent speech and passion for the anti-abolition cause. After escaping from slavery, he went on to become a national leader of the abolitionist movement in Massachusetts and New York with his oratory and incisive antislavery writings. To this day, his fierce activism and devotion to exposing virulent racism for what it was has left a lasting legacy upon pro-Black social movements and the overall sociopolitical landscape of America.
11. Still I Rise by Maya Angelou
“You may write me down in history With your bitter, twisted lies, You may trod me in the very dirt But still, like dust, I’ll rise. Does my sassiness upset you? Why are you beset with gloom? ’Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells Pumping in my living room. Just like moons and like suns, With the certainty of tides, Just like hopes springing high, Still I’ll rise. Did you want to see me broken? Bowed head and lowered eyes? Shoulders falling down like teardrops, Weakened by my soulful cries? Does my haughtiness offend you? Don’t you take it awful hard ’Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines Diggin’ in my own backyard. You may shoot me with your words, You may cut me with your eyes, You may kill me with your hatefulness, But still, like air, I’ll rise. Does my sexiness upset you? Does it come as a surprise That I dance like I’ve got diamonds At the meeting of my thighs? Out of the huts of history’s shame I rise Up from a past that’s rooted in pain I rise I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide, Welling and swelling I bear in the tide. Leaving behind nights of terror and fear I rise Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear I rise Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave, I am the dream and the hope of the slave. I rise I rise I rise.”
With her iconic poem Still I Rise , Maya Angelou is well-known for uplifting fellow African American women through her empowering novels and poetry and her work as a civil rights activist. Every bit as lyrical on the page, her recitation of Still I Rise continues to give poetry audiences shivers all over the world, inspiring women of colour everywhere to keep the good faith in striving for equality and peace, while radically believing in and empowering themselves to be agents of change. A dramatic reading of the poem will easily showcase the self-belief, strength and punch that it packs in the last stanza on the power of resisting marginalization.
12. Their Finest Hour by Winston Churchill
“What General Weygand called the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, “This was their finest hour.””
In the darkest shadows cast by war, few leaders have been able to step up to the mantle and effectively unify millions of citizens for truly sacrificial causes. Winston Churchill was the extraordinary exception – lifting 1940 Britain out of the darkness with his hopeful, convicted rhetoric to galvanise the English amidst bleak, dreary days of war and loss. Through Britain’s standalone position in WWII against the Nazis, he left his legacy by unifying the nation under shared sacrifices of the army and commemorating their courage.
13. A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf
“Life for both sexes – and I looked at them (through a restaurant window while waiting for my lunch to be served), shouldering their way along the pavement – is arduous, difficult, a perpetual struggle. It calls for gigantic courage and strength. More than anything, perhaps, creatures of illusion as we are, it calls for confidence in oneself. Without self-confidence we are babes in the cradle. And how can we generate this imponderable quality, which is yet so invaluable, most quickly? By thinking that other people are inferior to oneself. By feeling that one has some innate superiority – it may be wealth, or rank, a straight nose, or the portrait of a grandfather by Romney – for there is no end to the pathetic devices of the human imagination – over other people. Hence the enormous importance to a patriarch who has to conquer, who has to rule, of feeling that great numbers of people, half the human race indeed, are by nature inferior to himself. It must indeed be one of the great sources of his power….Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size. Without that power probably the earth would still be swamp and jungle. The glories of all our wars would be on the remains of mutton bones and bartering flints for sheepskins or whatever simple ornament took our unsophisticated taste. Supermen and Fingers of Destiny would never have existed. The Czar and the Kaiser would never have worn their crowns or lost them. Whatever may be their use in civilised societies, mirrors are essential to all violent and heroic action. That is why Napoleon and Mussolini both insist so emphatically upon the inferiority of women, for if they were not inferior, they would cease to enlarge. That serves to explain in part the necessity that women so often are to men. And it serves to explain how restless they are under her criticism; how impossible it is for her to say to them this book is bad, this picture is feeble, or whatever it may be, without giving far more pain and rousing far more anger than a man would do who gave the same criticism. For if she begins to tell the truth, the figure in the looking-glass shrinks; his fitness in life is diminished. How is he to go on giving judgment, civilising natives, making laws, writing books, dressing up and speechifying at banquets, unless he can see himself at breakfast and at dinner at least twice the size he really is?”
In this transformational speech , Virginia Woolf pronounces her vision that ‘a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction’. She calls out the years in which women have been deprived of their own space for individual development through being chained to traditional arrangements or men’s prescriptions – demanding ‘gigantic courage’ and ‘confidence in oneself’ to brave through the onerous struggle of creating change for women’s rights. With her steadfast, stolid rhetoric and radical theorization, she paved the way for many women’s rights activists and writers to forge their own paths against patriarchal authority.
14. Inaugural Address by John F Kennedy
“In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility–I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it–and the glow from that fire can truly light the world. And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man. Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us here the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”
For what is probably the most historically groundbreaking use of parallelism in speech across American history, President JFK placed the weighty task of ‘asking what one can do for their country’ onto the shoulders of each American citizen. Using an air of firmness in his rhetoric by declaring his commitment to his countrymen, he urges each American to do the same for the broader, noble ideal of freedom for all. With his crucial interrogation of a citizen’s moral duty to his nation, President JFK truly made history.
15. Atoms for Peace Speech by Dwight Eisenhower
“To pause there would be to confirm the hopeless finality of a belief that two atomic colossi are doomed malevolently to eye each other indefinitely across a trembling world. To stop there would be to accept helplessly the probability of civilization destroyed, the annihilation of the irreplaceable heritage of mankind handed down to us from generation to generation, and the condemnation of mankind to begin all over again the age-old struggle upward from savagery towards decency, and right, and justice. Surely no sane member of the human race could discover victory in such desolation. Could anyone wish his name to be coupled by history with such human degradation and destruction?Occasional pages of history do record the faces of the “great destroyers”, but the whole book of history reveals mankind’s never-ending quest for peace and mankind’s God-given capacity to build. It is with the book of history, and not with isolated pages, that the United States will ever wish to be identified. My country wants to be constructive,not destructive. It wants agreements, not wars, among nations. It wants itself to live in freedom and in the confidence that the peoples of every other nation enjoy equally the right of choosing their own way of life. So my country’s purpose is to help us to move out of the dark chamber of horrors into the light, to find a way by which the minds of men, the hopes of men, the souls of men everywhere, can move forward towards peace and happiness and well-being.”
On a possibility as frightful and tense as nuclear war, President Eisenhower managed to convey the gravity of the world’s plight in his measured and persuasive speech centred on the greater good of mankind. Using rhetorical devices such as the three-part paratactical syntax which most world leaders are fond of for ingraining their words in the minds of their audience, he centers the discourse of the atomic bomb on those affected by such a world-changing decision in ‘the minds, hopes and souls of men everywhere’ – effectively putting the vivid image of millions of people’s fates at stake in the minds of his audience. Being able to make a topic as heavy and fraught with moral conflict as this as eloquent as he did, Eisenhower definitely ranks among some of the most skilled orators to date.
16. The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action by Audre Lorde
“I was going to die, if not sooner then later, whether or not I had ever spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you. But for every real word spoken, for every attempt I had ever made to speak those truths for which I am still seeking, I had made contact with other women while we examined the words to fit a world in which we all believed, bridging our differences. What are the words you do not have yet? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence? Perhaps for some of you here today, I am the face of one of your fears. Because I am a woman, because I am black, because I am myself, a black woman warrior poet doing my work, come to ask you, are you doing yours?”
Revolutionary writer, feminist and civil rights activist Audre Lorde first delivered this phenomenal speech at Lesbian and Literature panel of the Modern Language Association’s December 28, 1977 meeting, which went on to feature permanently in her writings for its sheer wisdom and truth. Her powerful writing and speech about living on the margins of society has enlightened millions of people discriminated across various intersections, confronting them with the reality that they must speak – since their ‘silence will not protect’ them from further marginalization. Through her illuminating words and oratory, she has reminded marginalized persons of the importance of their selfhood and the radical capacity for change they have in a world blighted by prejudice and division.
17. 1965 Cambridge Union Hall Speech by James Baldwin
“What is dangerous here is the turning away from – the turning away from – anything any white American says. The reason for the political hesitation, in spite of the Johnson landslide is that one has been betrayed by American politicians for so long. And I am a grown man and perhaps I can be reasoned with. I certainly hope I can be. But I don’t know, and neither does Martin Luther King, none of us know how to deal with those other people whom the white world has so long ignored, who don’t believe anything the white world says and don’t entirely believe anything I or Martin is saying. And one can’t blame them. You watch what has happened to them in less than twenty years.”
Baldwin’s invitation to the Cambridge Union Hall is best remembered for foregrounding the unflinching differences in white and African Americans’ ‘system of reality’ in everyday life. Raising uncomfortable truths about the insidious nature of racism post-civil war, he provides several nuggets of thought-provoking wisdom on the state of relations between the oppressed and their oppressors, and what is necessary to mediate such relations and destroy the exploitative thread of racist hatred. With great frankness, he admits to not having all the answers but provides hard-hitting wisdom on engagement to guide activists through confounding times nonetheless.
18. I Am Prepared to Die by Nelson Mandela
“Above all, My Lord, we want equal political rights, because without them our disabilities will be permanent. I know this sounds revolutionary to the whites in this country, because the majority of voters will be Africans. This makes the white man fear democracy. But this fear cannot be allowed to stand in the way of the only solution which will guarantee racial harmony and freedom for all. It is not true that the enfranchisement of all will result in racial domination. Political division, based on colour, is entirely artificial and, when it disappears, so will the domination of one colour group by another. The ANC has spent half a century fighting against racialism. When it triumphs as it certainly must, it will not change that policy. This then is what the ANC is fighting. Our struggle is a truly national one. It is a struggle of the African people, inspired by our own suffering and our own experience. It is a struggle for the right to live. During my lifetime I have dedicated my life to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realised. But, My Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
Apartheid is still considered one of these most devastating events of world history, and it would not have ended without the crucial effort and words of Nelson Mandela during his courageous political leadership. In this heartbreaking speech , he voices his utter devotion to the fight against institutionalised racism in African society – an ideal for which he was ‘prepared to die for’. Mandela continues to remind us today of his moral conviction in leading, wherein the world would likely to be a better place if all politicians had the same resolve and genuine commitment to human rights and the abolition of oppression as he did.
19. Critique on British Imperialism by General Aung San
“Do they form their observations by seeing the attendances at not very many cinemas and theatres of Rangoon? Do they judge this question of money circulation by paying a stray visit to a local bazaar? Do they know that cinemas and theatres are not true indicators, at least in Burma, of the people’s conditions? Do they know that there are many in this country who cannot think of going to these places by having to struggle for their bare existence from day to day? Do they know that those who nowadays patronise or frequent cinemas and theatres which exist only in Rangoon and a few big towns, belong generally to middle and upper classes and the very few of the many poor who can attend at all are doing so as a desperate form of relaxation just to make them forget their unsupportable existences for the while whatever may be the tomorrow that awaits them?”
Under British colonial rule, one of the most legendary nationalist leaders emerged from the ranks of the thousands of Burmese to boldly lead them towards independence, out of the exploitation and control under the British. General Aung San’s speech criticising British social, political and economic control of Burma continues to be scathing, articulate, and relevant – especially given his necessary goal of uniting the Burmese natives against their common oppressor. He successfully galvanised his people against the British, taking endless risks through nationalist speeches and demonstrations which gradually bore fruit in Burma’s independence.
20. Nobel Lecture by Mother Teresa
“I believe that we are not real social workers. We may be doing social work in the eyes of the people, but we are really contemplatives in the heart of the world. For we are touching the Body Of Christ 24 hours. We have 24 hours in this presence, and so you and I. You too try to bring that presence of God in your family, for the family that prays together stays together. And I think that we in our family don’t need bombs and guns, to destroy to bring peace–just get together, love one another, bring that peace, that joy, that strength of presence of each other in the home. And we will be able to overcome all the evil that is in the world. There is so much suffering, so much hatred, so much misery, and we with our prayer, with our sacrifice are beginning at home. Love begins at home, and it is not how much we do, but how much love we put in the action that we do. It is to God Almighty–how much we do it does not matter, because He is infinite, but how much love we put in that action. How much we do to Him in the person that we are serving.”
In contemporary culture, most people understand Mother Teresa to be the epitome of compassion and kindness. However, if one were to look closer at her speeches from the past, one would discover not merely her altruistic contributions, but her keen heart for social justice and the downtrodden. She wisely and gracefully remarks that ‘love begins at home’ from the individual actions of each person within their private lives, which accumulate into a life of goodness and charity. For this, her speeches served not just consolatory value or momentary relevance, as they still inform the present on how we can live lives worth living.
21. June 9 Speech to Martial Law Units by Deng Xiaoping
“This army still maintains the traditions of our old Red Army. What they crossed this time was in the true sense of the expression a political barrier, a threshold of life and death. This was not easy. This shows that the People’s Army is truly a great wall of iron and steel of the party and state. This shows that no matter how heavy our losses, the army, under the leadership of the party, will always remain the defender of the country, the defender of socialism, and the defender of the public interest. They are a most lovable people. At the same time, we should never forget how cruel our enemies are. We should have not one bit of forgiveness for them. The fact that this incident broke out as it did is very worthy of our pondering. It prompts us cool-headedly to consider the past and the future. Perhaps this bad thing will enable us to go ahead with reform and the open policy at a steadier and better — even a faster — pace, more speedily correct our mistakes, and better develop our strong points.”
Mere days before the 4 June 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising, Chinese Communist Party leader Deng Xiaoping sat with six party elders (senior officials) and the three remaining members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the paramount decision-making body in China’s government. The meeting was organised to discuss the best course of action for restoring social and political order to China, given the sweeping economic reforms that had taken place in the past decade that inevitably resulted in some social resistance from the populace. Deng then gave this astute and well-regarded speech, outlining the political complexities in shutting down student protests given the context of reforms encouraging economic liberalization already taking place, as aligned with the students’ desires. It may not be the most rousing or inflammatory of speeches, but it was certainly persuasive in voicing the importance of taking a strong stand for the economic reforms Deng was implementing to benefit Chinese citizens in the long run. Today, China is an economic superpower, far from its war-torn developing country status before Deng’s leadership – thanks to his foresight in ensuring political stability would allow China to enjoy the fruits of the massive changes they adapted to.
22. Freedom or Death by Emmeline Pankhurst
“You won your freedom in America when you had the revolution, by bloodshed, by sacrificing human life. You won the civil war by the sacrifice of human life when you decided to emancipate the negro. You have left it to women in your land, the men of all civilised countries have left it to women, to work out their own salvation. That is the way in which we women of England are doing. Human life for us is sacred, but we say if any life is to be sacrificed it shall be ours; we won’t do it ourselves, but we will put the enemy in the position where they will have to choose between giving us freedom or giving us death. Now whether you approve of us or whether you do not, you must see that we have brought the question of women’s suffrage into a position where it is of first rate importance, where it can be ignored no longer. Even the most hardened politician will hesitate to take upon himself directly the responsibility of sacrificing the lives of women of undoubted honour, of undoubted earnestness of purpose. That is the political situation as I lay it before you today.”
In 1913 after Suffragette Emily Davison stepped in front of King George V’s horse at the Epsom Derby and suffered fatal injuries, Emmeline Pankhurst delivered her speech to Connecticut as a call to action for people to support the suffragette movement. Her fortitude in delivering such a sobering speech on the state of women’s rights is worth remembering for its invaluable impact and contributions to the rights we enjoy in today’s world.
23. Quit India by Mahatma Gandhi
“We shall either free India or die in the attempt; we shall not live to see the perpetuation of our slavery. Every true Congressman or woman will join the struggle with an inflexible determination not to remain alive to see the country in bondage and slavery. Let that be your pledge. Keep jails out of your consideration. If the Government keep me free, I will not put on the Government the strain of maintaining a large number of prisoners at a time, when it is in trouble. Let every man and woman live every moment of his or her life hereafter in the consciousness that he or she eats or lives for achieving freedom and will die, if need be, to attain that goal. Take a pledge, with God and your own conscience as witness, that you will no longer rest till freedom is achieved and will be prepared to lay down your lives in the attempt to achieve it. He who loses his life will gain it; he who will seek to save it shall lose it. Freedom is not for the coward or the faint-hearted.”
Naturally, the revolutionary activist Gandhi had to appear in this list for his impassioned anti-colonial speeches which rallied Indians towards independence. Famous for leading non-violent demonstrations, his speeches were a key element in gathering Indians of all backgrounds together for the common cause of eliminating their colonial masters. His speeches were resolute, eloquent, and courageous, inspiring the hope and admiration of many not just within India, but around the world.
24. 1974 National Book Award Speech by Adrienne Rich, Alice Walker, Audre Lorde
“The statement I am going to read was prepared by three of the women nominated for the National Book Award for poetry, with the agreement that it would be read by whichever of us, if any, was chosen.We, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, and Alice Walker, together accept this award in the name of all the women whose voices have gone and still go unheard in a patriarchal world, and in the name of those who, like us, have been tolerated as token women in this culture, often at great cost and in great pain. We believe that we can enrich ourselves more in supporting and giving to each other than by competing against each other; and that poetry—if it is poetry—exists in a realm beyond ranking and comparison. We symbolically join together here in refusing the terms of patriarchal competition and declaring that we will share this prize among us, to be used as best we can for women. We appreciate the good faith of the judges for this award, but none of us could accept this money for herself, nor could she let go unquestioned the terms on which poets are given or denied honor and livelihood in this world, especially when they are women. We dedicate this occasion to the struggle for self-determination of all women, of every color, identification, or derived class: the poet, the housewife, the lesbian, the mathematician, the mother, the dishwasher, the pregnant teen-ager, the teacher, the grandmother, the prostitute, the philosopher, the waitress, the women who will understand what we are doing here and those who will not understand yet; the silent women whose voices have been denied us, the articulate women who have given us strength to do our work.”
Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, and Alice Walker wrote this joint speech to be delivered by Adrienne Rich at the 1974 National Book Awards, based on their suspicions that the first few African American lesbian women to be nominated for the awards would be snubbed in favour of a white woman nominee. Their suspicions were confirmed, and Adrienne Rich delivered this socially significant speech in solidarity with her fellow nominees, upholding the voices of the ‘silent women whose voices have been denied’.
25. Speech to 20th Congress of the CPSU by Nikita Khruschev
“Considering the question of the cult of an individual, we must first of all show everyone what harm this caused to the interests of our Party. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin had always stressed the Party’s role and significance in the direction of the socialist government of workers and peasants; he saw in this the chief precondition for a successful building of socialism in our country. Pointing to the great responsibility of the Bolshevik Party, as ruling Party of the Soviet state, Lenin called for the most meticulous observance of all norms of Party life; he called for the realization of the principles of collegiality in the direction of the Party and the state. Collegiality of leadership flows from the very nature of our Party, a Party built on the principles of democratic centralism. “This means,” said Lenin, “that all Party matters are accomplished by all Party members – directly or through representatives – who, without any exceptions, are subject to the same rules; in addition, all administrative members, all directing collegia, all holders of Party positions are elective, they must account for their activities and are recallable.””
This speech is possibly the most famed Russian speech for its status as a ‘secret’ speech delivered only to the CPSU at the time, which was eventually revealed to the public. Given the unchallenged political legacy and cult of personality which Stalin left in the Soviet Union, Nikita Khruschev’s speech condemning the authoritarian means Stalin had resorted to to consolidate power as un-socialist was an important mark in Russian history.
26. The Struggle for Human Rights by Eleanor Roosevelt
“It is my belief, and I am sure it is also yours, that the struggle for democracy and freedom is a critical struggle, for their preservation is essential to the great objective of the United Nations to maintain international peace and security. Among free men the end cannot justify the means. We know the patterns of totalitarianism — the single political party, the control of schools, press, radio, the arts, the sciences, and the church to support autocratic authority; these are the age-old patterns against which men have struggled for three thousand years. These are the signs of reaction, retreat, and retrogression. The United Nations must hold fast to the heritage of freedom won by the struggle of its people; it must help us to pass it on to generations to come. The development of the ideal of freedom and its translation into the everyday life of the people in great areas of the earth is the product of the efforts of many peoples. It is the fruit of a long tradition of vigorous thinking and courageous action. No one race and on one people can claim to have done all the work to achieve greater dignity for human beings and great freedom to develop human personality. In each generation and in each country there must be a continuation of the struggle and new steps forward must be taken since this is preeminently a field in which to stand still is to retreat.”
Eleanor Roosevelt has been among the most well-loved First Ladies for good reason – her eloquence and gravitas in delivering every speech convinced everyone of her suitability for the oval office. In this determined and articulate speech , she outlines the fundamental values that form the bedrock of democracy, urging the rest of the world to uphold human rights regardless of national ideology and interests.
27. The Ballot or The Bullet by Malcolm X
“And in this manner, the organizations will increase in number and in quantity and in quality, and by August, it is then our intention to have a black nationalist convention which will consist of delegates from all over the country who are interested in the political, economic and social philosophy of black nationalism. After these delegates convene, we will hold a seminar; we will hold discussions; we will listen to everyone. We want to hear new ideas and new solutions and new answers. And at that time, if we see fit then to form a black nationalist party, we’ll form a black nationalist party. If it’s necessary to form a black nationalist army, we’ll form a black nationalist army. It’ll be the ballot or the bullet. It’ll be liberty or it’ll be death.”
Inarguably, the revolutionary impact Malcolm X’s fearless oratory had was substantial in his time as a radical anti-racist civil rights activist. His speeches’ emancipatory potential put forth his ‘theory of rhetorical action’ where he urges Black Americans to employ both the ballot and the bullet, strategically without being dependent on the other should the conditions of oppression change. A crucial leader in the fight for civil rights, he opened the eyes of thousands of Black Americans, politicising and convincing them of the necessity of fighting for their democratic rights against white supremacists.
28. Living the Revolution by Gloria Steinem
“The challenge to all of us, and to you men and women who are graduating today, is to live a revolution, not to die for one. There has been too much killing, and the weapons are now far too terrible. This revolution has to change consciousness, to upset the injustice of our current hierarchy by refusing to honor it, and to live a life that enforces a new social justice. Because the truth is none of us can be liberated if other groups are not.”
In an unexpected commencement speech delivered at Vassar College in 1970, Gloria Steinem boldly makes a call to action on behalf of marginalized groups in need of liberation to newly graduated students. She proclaimed it the year of Women’s Liberation and forcefully highlighted the need for a social revolution to ‘upset the injustice of the current hierarchy’ in favour of human rights – echoing the hard-hitting motto on social justice, ‘until all of us are free, none of us are free’.
29. The Last Words of Harvey Milk by Harvey Milk
“I cannot prevent some people from feeling angry and frustrated and mad in response to my death, but I hope they will take the frustration and madness and instead of demonstrating or anything of that type, I would hope that they would take the power and I would hope that five, ten, one hundred, a thousand would rise. I would like to see every gay lawyer, every gay architect come out, stand up and let the world know. That would do more to end prejudice overnight than anybody could imagine. I urge them to do that, urge them to come out. Only that way will we start to achieve our rights. … All I ask is for the movement to continue, and if a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door…”
As the first openly gay elected official in the history of California, Harvey Milk’s entire political candidature was in itself a radical statement against the homophobic status quo at the time. Given the dangerous times he was in as an openly gay man, he anticipated that he would be assassinated eventually in his political career. As such, these are some of his last words which show the utter devotion he had to campaigning against homophobia while representing the American people, voicing his heartbreaking wish for the bullet that would eventually kill him to ‘destroy every closet door’.
30. Black Power Address at UC Berkeley by Stokely Carmichael
“Now we are now engaged in a psychological struggle in this country, and that is whether or not black people will have the right to use the words they want to use without white people giving their sanction to it; and that we maintain, whether they like it or not, we gonna use the word “Black Power” — and let them address themselves to that; but that we are not going to wait for white people to sanction Black Power. We’re tired waiting; every time black people move in this country, they’re forced to defend their position before they move. It’s time that the people who are supposed to be defending their position do that. That’s white people. They ought to start defending themselves as to why they have oppressed and exploited us.”
A forceful and impressive orator, Stokely Carmichael was among those at the forefront of the civil rights movement, who was a vigorous socialist organizer as well. He led the Black Power movement wherein he gave this urgent, influential speech that propelled Black Americans forward in their fight for constitutional rights in the 1960s.
31. Speech on Vietnam by Lyndon Johnson
“The true peace-keepers are those men who stand out there on the DMZ at this very hour, taking the worst that the enemy can give. The true peace-keepers are the soldiers who are breaking the terrorist’s grip around the villages of Vietnam—the civilians who are bringing medical care and food and education to people who have already suffered a generation of war. And so I report to you that we are going to continue to press forward. Two things we must do. Two things we shall do. First, we must not mislead the enemy. Let him not think that debate and dissent will produce wavering and withdrawal. For I can assure you they won’t. Let him not think that protests will produce surrender. Because they won’t. Let him not think that he will wait us out. For he won’t. Second, we will provide all that our brave men require to do the job that must be done. And that job is going to be done. These gallant men have our prayers-have our thanks—have our heart-felt praise—and our deepest gratitude. Let the world know that the keepers of peace will endure through every trial—and that with the full backing of their countrymen, they are going to prevail.”
During some of the most harrowing periods of human history, the Vietnam War, American soldiers were getting soundly defeated by the Vietnamese in guerrilla warfare. President Lyndon Johnson then issued this dignified, consolatory speech to encourage patriotism and support for the soldiers putting their lives on the line for the nation.
32. A Whisper of AIDS by Mary Fisher
“We may take refuge in our stereotypes, but we cannot hide there long, because HIV asks only one thing of those it attacks. Are you human? And this is the right question. Are you human? Because people with HIV have not entered some alien state of being. They are human. They have not earned cruelty, and they do not deserve meanness. They don’t benefit from being isolated or treated as outcasts. Each of them is exactly what God made: a person; not evil, deserving of our judgment; not victims, longing for our pity people, ready for support and worthy of compassion. We must be consistent if we are to be believed. We cannot love justice and ignore prejudice, love our children and fear to teach them. Whatever our role as parent or policymaker, we must act as eloquently as we speak else we have no integrity. My call to the nation is a plea for awareness. If you believe you are safe, you are in danger. Because I was not hemophiliac, I was not at risk. Because I was not gay, I was not at risk. Because I did not inject drugs, I was not at risk. The lesson history teaches is this: If you believe you are safe, you are at risk. If you do not see this killer stalking your children, look again. There is no family or community, no race or religion, no place left in America that is safe. Until we genuinely embrace this message, we are a nation at risk.”
Back when AIDS research was still undeveloped, the stigma of contracting HIV was even more immense than it is today. A celebrated artist, author and speaker, Mary Fisher became an outspoken activist for those with HIV/AIDS, persuading people to extend compassion to the population with HIV instead of stigmatizing them – as injustice has a way of coming around to people eventually. Her bold act of speaking out for the community regardless of the way they contracted the disease, their sexual orientation or social group, was an influential move in advancing the human rights of those with HIV and spreading awareness on the discrimination they face.
33. Freedom from Fear by Aung San Suu Kyi
“The quintessential revolution is that of the spirit, born of an intellectual conviction of the need for change in those mental attitudes and values which shape the course of a nation’s development. A revolution which aims merely at changing official policies and institutions with a view to an improvement in material conditions has little chance of genuine success. Without a revolution of the spirit, the forces which produced the iniquities of the old order would continue to be operative, posing a constant threat to the process of reform and regeneration. It is not enough merely to call for freedom, democracy and human rights. There has to be a united determination to persevere in the struggle, to make sacrifices in the name of enduring truths, to resist the corrupting influences of desire, ill will, ignorance and fear. Saints, it has been said, are the sinners who go on trying. So free men are the oppressed who go on trying and who in the process make themselves fit to bear the responsibilities and to uphold the disciplines which will maintain a free society. Among the basic freedoms to which men aspire that their lives might be full and uncramped, freedom from fear stands out as both a means and an end. A people who would build a nation in which strong, democratic institutions are firmly established as a guarantee against state-induced power must first learn to liberate their own minds from apathy and fear.”
Famous for her resoluteness and fortitude in campaigning for democracy in Burma despite being put under house arrest by the military government, Aung San Suu Kyi’s speeches have been widely touted as inspirational. In this renowned speech of hers, she delivers a potent message to Burmese to ‘liberate their minds from apathy and fear’ in the struggle for freedom and human rights in the country. To this day, she continues to tirelessly champion the welfare and freedom of Burmese in a state still overcome by vestiges of authoritarian rule.
34. This Is Water by David Foster Wallace
“Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving…. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day. That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.”
Esteemed writer David Foster Wallace gave a remarkably casual yet wise commencement speech at Kenyon College in 2005 on the importance of learning to think beyond attaining a formal education. He encouraged hundreds of students to develop freedom of thought, a heart of sacrificial care for those in need of justice, and a consciousness that would serve them in discerning the right choices to make within a status quo that is easy to fall in line with. His captivating speech on what it meant to truly be ‘educated’ tugged at the hearts of many young and critical minds striving to achieve their dreams and change the world.
35. Questioning the Universe by Stephen Hawking
“This brings me to the last of the big questions: the future of the human race. If we are the only intelligent beings in the galaxy, we should make sure we survive and continue. But we are entering an increasingly dangerous period of our history. Our population and our use of the finite resources of planet Earth are growing exponentially, along with our technical ability to change the environment for good or ill. But our genetic code still carries the selfish and aggressive instincts that were of survival advantage in the past. It will be difficult enough to avoid disaster in the next hundred years, let alone the next thousand or million. Our only chance of long-term survival is not to remain inward-looking on planet Earth, but to spread out into space. The answers to these big questions show that we have made remarkable progress in the last hundred years. But if we want to continue beyond the next hundred years, our future is in space. That is why I am in favor of manned — or should I say, personned — space flight.”
Extraordinary theoretical physicist, cosmologist, and author Stephen Hawking was a considerable influence upon modern physics and scientific research at large, inspiring people regardless of physical ability to aspire towards expanding knowledge in the world. In his speech on Questioning the Universe, he speaks of the emerging currents and issues in the scientific world like that of outer space, raising and answering big questions that have stumped great thinkers for years.
36. 2008 Democratic National Convention Speech by Michelle Obama
“I stand here today at the crosscurrents of that history — knowing that my piece of the American dream is a blessing hard won by those who came before me. All of them driven by the same conviction that drove my dad to get up an hour early each day to painstakingly dress himself for work. The same conviction that drives the men and women I’ve met all across this country: People who work the day shift, kiss their kids goodnight, and head out for the night shift — without disappointment, without regret — that goodnight kiss a reminder of everything they’re working for. The military families who say grace each night with an empty seat at the table. The servicemen and women who love this country so much, they leave those they love most to defend it. The young people across America serving our communities — teaching children, cleaning up neighborhoods, caring for the least among us each and every day. People like Hillary Clinton, who put those 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling, so that our daughters — and sons — can dream a little bigger and aim a little higher. People like Joe Biden, who’s never forgotten where he came from and never stopped fighting for folks who work long hours and face long odds and need someone on their side again. All of us driven by a simple belief that the world as it is just won’t do — that we have an obligation to fight for the world as it should be. That is the thread that connects our hearts. That is the thread that runs through my journey and Barack’s journey and so many other improbable journeys that have brought us here tonight, where the current of history meets this new tide of hope. That is why I love this country.”
Ever the favourite modern First Lady of America, Michelle Obama has delivered an abundance of iconic speeches in her political capacity, never forgetting to foreground the indomitable human spirit embodied in American citizens’ everyday lives and efforts towards a better world. The Obamas might just have been the most articulate couple of rhetoricians of their time, making waves as the first African American president and First Lady while introducing important policies in their period of governance.
37. The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama
“I’m not talking about blind optimism here — the almost willful ignorance that thinks unemployment will go away if we just don’t think about it, or the health care crisis will solve itself if we just ignore it. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about something more substantial. It’s the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs; the hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores; the hope of a young naval lieutenant bravely patrolling the Mekong Delta; the hope of a millworker’s son who dares to defy the odds; the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too. Hope — Hope in the face of difficulty. Hope in the face of uncertainty. The audacity of hope! In the end, that is God’s greatest gift to us, the bedrock of this nation. A belief in things not seen. A belief that there are better days ahead.”
Now published into a book, Barack Obama’s heart-capturing personal story of transformational hope was first delivered as a speech on the merits of patriotic optimism and determination put to the mission of concrete change. He has come to be known as one of the most favoured and inspiring presidents in American history, and arguably the most skilled orators ever.
38. “Be Your Own Story” by Toni Morrison
“But I’m not going to talk anymore about the future because I’m hesitant to describe or predict because I’m not even certain that it exists. That is to say, I’m not certain that somehow, perhaps, a burgeoning ménage a trois of political interests, corporate interests and military interests will not prevail and literally annihilate an inhabitable, humane future. Because I don’t think we can any longer rely on separation of powers, free speech, religious tolerance or unchallengeable civil liberties as a matter of course. That is, not while finite humans in the flux of time make decisions of infinite damage. Not while finite humans make infinite claims of virtue and unassailable power that are beyond their competence, if not their reach. So, no happy talk about the future. … Because the past is already in debt to the mismanaged present. And besides, contrary to what you may have heard or learned, the past is not done and it is not over, it’s still in process, which is another way of saying that when it’s critiqued, analyzed, it yields new information about itself. The past is already changing as it is being reexamined, as it is being listened to for deeper resonances. Actually it can be more liberating than any imagined future if you are willing to identify its evasions, its distortions, its lies, and are willing to unleash its secrets.”
Venerated author and professor Toni Morrison delivered an impressively articulate speech at Wellesley College in 2004 to new graduates, bucking the trend by discussing the importance of the past in informing current and future ways of living. With her brilliance and eloquence, she blew the crowd away and renewed in them the capacity for reflection upon using the past as a talisman to guide oneself along the journey of life.
39. Nobel Speech by Malala Yousafzai
“Dear brothers and sisters, the so-called world of adults may understand it, but we children don’t. Why is it that countries which we call “strong” are so powerful in creating wars but so weak in bringing peace? Why is it that giving guns is so easy but giving books is so hard? Why is it that making tanks is so easy, but building schools is so difficult? As we are living in the modern age, the 21st century and we all believe that nothing is impossible. We can reach the moon and maybe soon will land on Mars. Then, in this, the 21st century, we must be determined that our dream of quality education for all will also come true. So let us bring equality, justice and peace for all. Not just the politicians and the world leaders, we all need to contribute. Me. You. It is our duty. So we must work … and not wait. I call upon my fellow children to stand up around the world. Dear sisters and brothers, let us become the first generation to decide to be the last. The empty classrooms, the lost childhoods, wasted potential-let these things end with us.”
At a mere 16 years of age, Malala Yousafzai gave a speech on the severity of the state of human rights across the world, and wowed the world with her passion for justice at her tender age. She displayed tenacity and fearlessness speaking about her survival of an assassination attempt for her activism for gender equality in the field of education. A model of courage to us all, her speech remains an essential one in the fight for human rights in the 21st century.
40. Final Commencement Speech by Michelle Obama
“If you are a person of faith, know that religious diversity is a great American tradition, too. In fact, that’s why people first came to this country — to worship freely. And whether you are Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh — these religions are teaching our young people about justice, and compassion, and honesty. So I want our young people to continue to learn and practice those values with pride. You see, our glorious diversity — our diversities of faiths and colors and creeds — that is not a threat to who we are, it makes us who we are. So the young people here and the young people out there: Do not ever let anyone make you feel like you don’t matter, or like you don’t have a place in our American story — because you do. And you have a right to be exactly who you are. But I also want to be very clear: This right isn’t just handed to you. No, this right has to be earned every single day. You cannot take your freedoms for granted. Just like generations who have come before you, you have to do your part to preserve and protect those freedoms. … It is our fundamental belief in the power of hope that has allowed us to rise above the voices of doubt and division, of anger and fear that we have faced in our own lives and in the life of this country. Our hope that if we work hard enough and believe in ourselves, then we can be whatever we dream, regardless of the limitations that others may place on us. The hope that when people see us for who we truly are, maybe, just maybe they, too, will be inspired to rise to their best possible selves.”
Finally, we have yet another speech by Michelle Obama given in her final remarks as First Lady – a tear-inducing event for many Americans and even people around the world. In this emotional end to her political tenure, she gives an empowering, hopeful, expressive speech to young Americans, exhorting them to take hold of its future in all their diversity and work hard at being their best possible selves.
Amidst the bleak era of our current time with Trump as president of the USA, not only Michelle Obama, but all 40 of these amazing speeches can serve as sources of inspiration and hope to everyone – regardless of their identity or ambitions. After hearing these speeches, which one’s your favorite? Let us know in the comments below!
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The Top 10 Essays Since 1950
Robert Atwan, the founder of The Best American Essays series, picks the 10 best essays of the postwar period. Links to the essays are provided when available.
Fortunately, when I worked with Joyce Carol Oates on The Best American Essays of the Century (that’s the last century, by the way), we weren’t restricted to ten selections. So to make my list of the top ten essays since 1950 less impossible, I decided to exclude all the great examples of New Journalism--Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Michael Herr, and many others can be reserved for another list. I also decided to include only American writers, so such outstanding English-language essayists as Chris Arthur and Tim Robinson are missing, though they have appeared in The Best American Essays series. And I selected essays , not essayists . A list of the top ten essayists since 1950 would feature some different writers.
To my mind, the best essays are deeply personal (that doesn’t necessarily mean autobiographical) and deeply engaged with issues and ideas. And the best essays show that the name of the genre is also a verb, so they demonstrate a mind in process--reflecting, trying-out, essaying.
James Baldwin, "Notes of a Native Son" (originally appeared in Harper’s , 1955)
“I had never thought of myself as an essayist,” wrote James Baldwin, who was finishing his novel Giovanni’s Room while he worked on what would become one of the great American essays. Against a violent historical background, Baldwin recalls his deeply troubled relationship with his father and explores his growing awareness of himself as a black American. Some today may question the relevance of the essay in our brave new “post-racial” world, though Baldwin considered the essay still relevant in 1984 and, had he lived to see it, the election of Barak Obama may not have changed his mind. However you view the racial politics, the prose is undeniably hypnotic, beautifully modulated and yet full of urgency. Langston Hughes nailed it when he described Baldwin’s “illuminating intensity.” The essay was collected in Notes of a Native Son courageously (at the time) published by Beacon Press in 1955.
Norman Mailer, "The White Negro" (originally appeared in Dissent , 1957)
An essay that packed an enormous wallop at the time may make some of us cringe today with its hyperbolic dialectics and hyperventilated metaphysics. But Mailer’s attempt to define the “hipster”–in what reads in part like a prose version of Ginsberg’s “Howl”–is suddenly relevant again, as new essays keep appearing with a similar definitional purpose, though no one would mistake Mailer’s hipster (“a philosophical psychopath”) for the ones we now find in Mailer’s old Brooklyn neighborhoods. Odd, how terms can bounce back into life with an entirely different set of connotations. What might Mailer call the new hipsters? Squares?
Read the essay here .
Susan Sontag, "Notes on 'Camp'" (originally appeared in Partisan Review , 1964)
Like Mailer’s “White Negro,” Sontag’s groundbreaking essay was an ambitious attempt to define a modern sensibility, in this case “camp,” a word that was then almost exclusively associated with the gay world. I was familiar with it as an undergraduate, hearing it used often by a set of friends, department store window decorators in Manhattan. Before I heard Sontag—thirty-one, glamorous, dressed entirely in black-- read the essay on publication at a Partisan Review gathering, I had simply interpreted “campy” as an exaggerated style or over-the-top behavior. But after Sontag unpacked the concept, with the help of Oscar Wilde, I began to see the cultural world in a different light. “The whole point of camp,” she writes, “is to dethrone the serious.” Her essay, collected in Against Interpretation (1966), is not in itself an example of camp.
John McPhee, "The Search for Marvin Gardens" (originally appeared in The New Yorker , 1972)
“Go. I roll the dice—a six and a two. Through the air I move my token, the flatiron, to Vermont Avenue, where dog packs range.” And so we move, in this brilliantly conceived essay, from a series of Monopoly games to a decaying Atlantic City, the once renowned resort town that inspired America’s most popular board game. As the games progress and as properties are rapidly snapped up, McPhee juxtaposes the well-known sites on the board—Atlantic Avenue, Park Place—with actual visits to their crumbling locations. He goes to jail, not just in the game but in fact, portraying what life has now become in a city that in better days was a Boardwalk Empire. At essay’s end, he finds the elusive Marvin Gardens. The essay was collected in Pieces of the Frame (1975).
Read the essay here (subscription required).
Joan Didion, "The White Album" (originally appeared in New West , 1979)
Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, and the Black Panthers, a recording session with Jim Morrison and the Doors, the San Francisco State riots, the Manson murders—all of these, and much more, figure prominently in Didion’s brilliant mosaic distillation (or phantasmagoric album) of California life in the late 1960s. Yet despite a cast of characters larger than most Hollywood epics, “The White Album” is a highly personal essay, right down to Didion’s report of her psychiatric tests as an outpatient in a Santa Monica hospital in the summer of 1968. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” the essay famously begins, and as it progresses nervously through cuts and flashes of reportage, with transcripts, interviews, and testimonies, we realize that all of our stories are questionable, “the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images.” Portions of the essay appeared in installments in 1968-69 but it wasn’t until 1979 that Didion published the complete essay in New West magazine; it then became the lead essay of her book, The White Album (1979).
Annie Dillard, "Total Eclipse" (originally appeared in Antaeus , 1982)
In her introduction to The Best American Essays 1988 , Annie Dillard claims that “The essay can do everything a poem can do, and everything a short story can do—everything but fake it.” Her essay “Total Eclipse” easily makes her case for the imaginative power of a genre that is still undervalued as a branch of imaginative literature. “Total Eclipse” has it all—the climactic intensity of short fiction, the interwoven imagery of poetry, and the meditative dynamics of the personal essay: “This was the universe about which we have read so much and never before felt: the universe as a clockwork of loose spheres flung at stupefying, unauthorized speeds.” The essay, which first appeared in Antaeus in 1982 was collected in Teaching a Stone to Talk (1982), a slim volume that ranks among the best essay collections of the past fifty years.
Phillip Lopate, "Against Joie de Vivre" (originally appeared in Ploughshares , 1986)
This is an essay that made me glad I’d started The Best American Essays the year before. I’d been looking for essays that grew out of a vibrant Montaignean spirit—personal essays that were witty, conversational, reflective, confessional, and yet always about something worth discussing. And here was exactly what I’d been looking for. I might have found such writing several decades earlier but in the 80s it was relatively rare; Lopate had found a creative way to insert the old familiar essay into the contemporary world: “Over the years,” Lopate begins, “I have developed a distaste for the spectacle of joie de vivre , the knack of knowing how to live.” He goes on to dissect in comic yet astute detail the rituals of the modern dinner party. The essay was selected by Gay Talese for The Best American Essays 1987 and collected in Against Joie de Vivre in 1989 .
Edward Hoagland, "Heaven and Nature" (originally appeared in Harper’s, 1988)
“The best essayist of my generation,” is how John Updike described Edward Hoagland, who must be one of the most prolific essayists of our time as well. “Essays,” Hoagland wrote, “are how we speak to one another in print—caroming thoughts not merely in order to convey a certain packet of information, but with a special edge or bounce of personal character in a kind of public letter.” I could easily have selected many other Hoagland essays for this list (such as “The Courage of Turtles”), but I’m especially fond of “Heaven and Nature,” which shows Hoagland at his best, balancing the public and private, the well-crafted general observation with the clinching vivid example. The essay, selected by Geoffrey Wolff for The Best American Essays 1989 and collected in Heart’s Desire (1988), is an unforgettable meditation not so much on suicide as on how we remarkably manage to stay alive.
Jo Ann Beard, "The Fourth State of Matter" (originally appeared in The New Yorker , 1996)
A question for nonfiction writing students: When writing a true story based on actual events, how does the narrator create dramatic tension when most readers can be expected to know what happens in the end? To see how skillfully this can be done turn to Jo Ann Beard’s astonishing personal story about a graduate student’s murderous rampage on the University of Iowa campus in 1991. “Plasma is the fourth state of matter,” writes Beard, who worked in the U of I’s physics department at the time of the incident, “You’ve got your solid, your liquid, your gas, and there’s your plasma. In outer space there’s the plasmasphere and the plasmapause.” Besides plasma, in this emotion-packed essay you will find entangled in all the tension a lovable, dying collie, invasive squirrels, an estranged husband, the seriously disturbed gunman, and his victims, one of them among the author’s dearest friends. Selected by Ian Frazier for The Best American Essays 1997 , the essay was collected in Beard’s award-winning volume, The Boys of My Youth (1998).
David Foster Wallace, "Consider the Lobster" (originally appeared in Gourmet , 2004)
They may at first look like magazine articles—those factually-driven, expansive pieces on the Illinois State Fair, a luxury cruise ship, the adult video awards, or John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign—but once you uncover the disguise and get inside them you are in the midst of essayistic genius. One of David Foster Wallace’s shortest and most essayistic is his “coverage” of the annual Maine Lobster Festival, “Consider the Lobster.” The Festival becomes much more than an occasion to observe “the World’s Largest Lobster Cooker” in action as Wallace poses an uncomfortable question to readers of the upscale food magazine: “Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure?” Don’t gloss over the footnotes. Susan Orlean selected the essay for The Best American Essays 2004 and Wallace collected it in Consider the Lobster and Other Essays (2005).
Read the essay here . (Note: the electronic version from Gourmet magazine’s archives differs from the essay that appears in The Best American Essays and in his book, Consider the Lobster. )
I wish I could include twenty more essays but these ten in themselves comprise a wonderful and wide-ranging mini-anthology, one that showcases some of the most outstanding literary voices of our time. Readers who’d like to see more of the best essays since 1950 should take a look at The Best American Essays of the Century (2000).
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The 10 Best Essay Collections of the Decade
Ever tried. ever failed. no matter..
Friends, it’s true: the end of the decade approaches. It’s been a difficult, anxiety-provoking, morally compromised decade, but at least it’s been populated by some damn fine literature. We’ll take our silver linings where we can.
So, as is our hallowed duty as a literary and culture website—though with full awareness of the potentially fruitless and endlessly contestable nature of the task—in the coming weeks, we’ll be taking a look at the best and most important (these being not always the same) books of the decade that was. We will do this, of course, by means of a variety of lists. We began with the best debut novels , the best short story collections , the best poetry collections , and the best memoirs of the decade , and we have now reached the fifth list in our series: the best essay collections published in English between 2010 and 2019.
The following books were chosen after much debate (and several rounds of voting) by the Literary Hub staff. Tears were spilled, feelings were hurt, books were re-read. And as you’ll shortly see, we had a hard time choosing just ten—so we’ve also included a list of dissenting opinions, and an even longer list of also-rans. As ever, free to add any of your own favorites that we’ve missed in the comments below.
The Top Ten
Oliver sacks, the mind’s eye (2010).
Toward the end of his life, maybe suspecting or sensing that it was coming to a close, Dr. Oliver Sacks tended to focus his efforts on sweeping intellectual projects like On the Move (a memoir), The River of Consciousness (a hybrid intellectual history), and Hallucinations (a book-length meditation on, what else, hallucinations). But in 2010, he gave us one more classic in the style that first made him famous, a form he revolutionized and brought into the contemporary literary canon: the medical case study as essay. In The Mind’s Eye , Sacks focuses on vision, expanding the notion to embrace not only how we see the world, but also how we map that world onto our brains when our eyes are closed and we’re communing with the deeper recesses of consciousness. Relaying histories of patients and public figures, as well as his own history of ocular cancer (the condition that would eventually spread and contribute to his death), Sacks uses vision as a lens through which to see all of what makes us human, what binds us together, and what keeps us painfully apart. The essays that make up this collection are quintessential Sacks: sensitive, searching, with an expertise that conveys scientific information and experimentation in terms we can not only comprehend, but which also expand how we see life carrying on around us. The case studies of “Stereo Sue,” of the concert pianist Lillian Kalir, and of Howard, the mystery novelist who can no longer read, are highlights of the collection, but each essay is a kind of gem, mined and polished by one of the great storytellers of our era. –Dwyer Murphy, CrimeReads Managing Editor
John Jeremiah Sullivan, Pulphead (2011)
The American essay was having a moment at the beginning of the decade, and Pulphead was smack in the middle. Without any hard data, I can tell you that this collection of John Jeremiah Sullivan’s magazine features—published primarily in GQ , but also in The Paris Review , and Harper’s —was the only full book of essays most of my literary friends had read since Slouching Towards Bethlehem , and probably one of the only full books of essays they had even heard of.
Well, we all picked a good one. Every essay in Pulphead is brilliant and entertaining, and illuminates some small corner of the American experience—even if it’s just one house, with Sullivan and an aging writer inside (“Mr. Lytle” is in fact a standout in a collection with no filler; fittingly, it won a National Magazine Award and a Pushcart Prize). But what are they about? Oh, Axl Rose, Christian Rock festivals, living around the filming of One Tree Hill , the Tea Party movement, Michael Jackson, Bunny Wailer, the influence of animals, and by god, the Miz (of Real World/Road Rules Challenge fame).
But as Dan Kois has pointed out , what connects these essays, apart from their general tone and excellence, is “their author’s essential curiosity about the world, his eye for the perfect detail, and his great good humor in revealing both his subjects’ and his own foibles.” They are also extremely well written, drawing much from fictional techniques and sentence craft, their literary pleasures so acute and remarkable that James Wood began his review of the collection in The New Yorker with a quiz: “Are the following sentences the beginnings of essays or of short stories?” (It was not a hard quiz, considering the context.)
It’s hard not to feel, reading this collection, like someone reached into your brain, took out the half-baked stuff you talk about with your friends, researched it, lived it, and represented it to you smarter and better and more thoroughly than you ever could. So read it in awe if you must, but read it. –Emily Temple, Senior Editor
Aleksandar Hemon, The Book of My Lives (2013)
Such is the sentence-level virtuosity of Aleksandar Hemon—the Bosnian-American writer, essayist, and critic—that throughout his career he has frequently been compared to the granddaddy of borrowed language prose stylists: Vladimir Nabokov. While it is, of course, objectively remarkable that anyone could write so beautifully in a language they learned in their twenties, what I admire most about Hemon’s work is the way in which he infuses every essay and story and novel with both a deep humanity and a controlled (but never subdued) fury. He can also be damn funny. Hemon grew up in Sarajevo and left in 1992 to study in Chicago, where he almost immediately found himself stranded, forced to watch from afar as his beloved home city was subjected to a relentless four-year bombardment, the longest siege of a capital in the history of modern warfare. This extraordinary memoir-in-essays is many things: it’s a love letter to both the family that raised him and the family he built in exile; it’s a rich, joyous, and complex portrait of a place the 90s made synonymous with war and devastation; and it’s an elegy for the wrenching loss of precious things. There’s an essay about coming of age in Sarajevo and another about why he can’t bring himself to leave Chicago. There are stories about relationships forged and maintained on the soccer pitch or over the chessboard, and stories about neighbors and mentors turned monstrous by ethnic prejudice. As a chorus they sing with insight, wry humor, and unimaginable sorrow. I am not exaggerating when I say that the collection’s devastating final piece, “The Aquarium”—which details his infant daughter’s brain tumor and the agonizing months which led up to her death—remains the most painful essay I have ever read. –Dan Sheehan, Book Marks Editor
Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass (2013)
Of every essay in my relentlessly earmarked copy of Braiding Sweetgrass , Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer’s gorgeously rendered argument for why and how we should keep going, there’s one that especially hits home: her account of professor-turned-forester Franz Dolp. When Dolp, several decades ago, revisited the farm that he had once shared with his ex-wife, he found a scene of destruction: The farm’s new owners had razed the land where he had tried to build a life. “I sat among the stumps and the swirling red dust and I cried,” he wrote in his journal.
So many in my generation (and younger) feel this kind of helplessness–and considerable rage–at finding ourselves newly adult in a world where those in power seem determined to abandon or destroy everything that human bodies have always needed to survive: air, water, land. Asking any single book to speak to this helplessness feels unfair, somehow; yet, Braiding Sweetgrass does, by weaving descriptions of indigenous tradition with the environmental sciences in order to show what survival has looked like over the course of many millennia. Kimmerer’s essays describe her personal experience as a Potawotami woman, plant ecologist, and teacher alongside stories of the many ways that humans have lived in relationship to other species. Whether describing Dolp’s work–he left the stumps for a life of forest restoration on the Oregon coast–or the work of others in maple sugar harvesting, creating black ash baskets, or planting a Three Sisters garden of corn, beans, and squash, she brings hope. “In ripe ears and swelling fruit, they counsel us that all gifts are multiplied in relationship,” she writes of the Three Sisters, which all sustain one another as they grow. “This is how the world keeps going.” –Corinne Segal, Senior Editor
Hilton Als, White Girls (2013)
In a world where we are so often reduced to one essential self, Hilton Als’ breathtaking book of critical essays, White Girls , which meditates on the ways he and other subjects read, project and absorb parts of white femininity, is a radically liberating book. It’s one of the only works of critical thinking that doesn’t ask the reader, its author or anyone he writes about to stoop before the doorframe of complete legibility before entering. Something he also permitted the subjects and readers of his first book, the glorious book-length essay, The Women , a series of riffs and psychological portraits of Dorothy Dean, Owen Dodson, and the author’s own mother, among others. One of the shifts of that book, uncommon at the time, was how it acknowledges the way we inhabit bodies made up of variously gendered influences. To read White Girls now is to experience the utter freedom of this gift and to marvel at Als’ tremendous versatility and intelligence.
He is easily the most diversely talented American critic alive. He can write into genres like pop music and film where being part of an audience is a fantasy happening in the dark. He’s also wired enough to know how the art world builds reputations on the nod of rich white patrons, a significant collision in a time when Jean-Michel Basquiat is America’s most expensive modern artist. Als’ swerving and always moving grip on performance means he’s especially good on describing the effect of art which is volatile and unstable and built on the mingling of made-up concepts and the hard fact of their effect on behavior, such as race. Writing on Flannery O’Connor for instance he alone puts a finger on her “uneasy and unavoidable union between black and white, the sacred and the profane, the shit and the stars.” From Eminem to Richard Pryor, André Leon Talley to Michael Jackson, Als enters the life and work of numerous artists here who turn the fascinations of race and with whiteness into fury and song and describes the complexity of their beauty like his life depended upon it. There are also brief memoirs here that will stop your heart. This is an essential work to understanding American culture. –John Freeman, Executive Editor
Eula Biss, On Immunity (2014)
We move through the world as if we can protect ourselves from its myriad dangers, exercising what little agency we have in an effort to keep at bay those fears that gather at the edges of any given life: of loss, illness, disaster, death. It is these fears—amplified by the birth of her first child—that Eula Biss confronts in her essential 2014 essay collection, On Immunity . As any great essayist does, Biss moves outward in concentric circles from her own very private view of the world to reveal wider truths, discovering as she does a culture consumed by anxiety at the pervasive toxicity of contemporary life. As Biss interrogates this culture—of privilege, of whiteness—she interrogates herself, questioning the flimsy ways in which we arm ourselves with science or superstition against the impurities of daily existence.
Five years on from its publication, it is dismaying that On Immunity feels as urgent (and necessary) a defense of basic science as ever. Vaccination, we learn, is derived from vacca —for cow—after the 17th-century discovery that a small application of cowpox was often enough to inoculate against the scourge of smallpox, an etymological digression that belies modern conspiratorial fears of Big Pharma and its vaccination agenda. But Biss never scolds or belittles the fears of others, and in her generosity and openness pulls off a neat (and important) trick: insofar as we are of the very world we fear, she seems to be suggesting, we ourselves are impure, have always been so, permeable, vulnerable, yet so much stronger than we think. –Jonny Diamond, Editor-in-Chief
Rebecca Solnit, The Mother of All Questions (2016)
When Rebecca Solnit’s essay, “Men Explain Things to Me,” was published in 2008, it quickly became a cultural phenomenon unlike almost any other in recent memory, assigning language to a behavior that almost every woman has witnessed—mansplaining—and, in the course of identifying that behavior, spurring a movement, online and offline, to share the ways in which patriarchal arrogance has intersected all our lives. (It would also come to be the titular essay in her collection published in 2014.) The Mother of All Questions follows up on that work and takes it further in order to examine the nature of self-expression—who is afforded it and denied it, what institutions have been put in place to limit it, and what happens when it is employed by women. Solnit has a singular gift for describing and decoding the misogynistic dynamics that govern the world so universally that they can seem invisible and the gendered violence that is so common as to seem unremarkable; this naming is powerful, and it opens space for sharing the stories that shape our lives.
The Mother of All Questions, comprised of essays written between 2014 and 2016, in many ways armed us with some of the tools necessary to survive the gaslighting of the Trump years, in which many of us—and especially women—have continued to hear from those in power that the things we see and hear do not exist and never existed. Solnit also acknowledges that labels like “woman,” and other gendered labels, are identities that are fluid in reality; in reviewing the book for The New Yorker , Moira Donegan suggested that, “One useful working definition of a woman might be ‘someone who experiences misogyny.'” Whichever words we use, Solnit writes in the introduction to the book that “when words break through unspeakability, what was tolerated by a society sometimes becomes intolerable.” This storytelling work has always been vital; it continues to be vital, and in this book, it is brilliantly done. –Corinne Segal, Senior Editor
Valeria Luiselli, Tell Me How It Ends (2017)
The newly minted MacArthur fellow Valeria Luiselli’s four-part (but really six-part) essay Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions was inspired by her time spent volunteering at the federal immigration court in New York City, working as an interpreter for undocumented, unaccompanied migrant children who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border. Written concurrently with her novel Lost Children Archive (a fictional exploration of the same topic), Luiselli’s essay offers a fascinating conceit, the fashioning of an argument from the questions on the government intake form given to these children to process their arrivals. (Aside from the fact that this essay is a heartbreaking masterpiece, this is such a good conceit—transforming a cold, reproducible administrative document into highly personal literature.) Luiselli interweaves a grounded discussion of the questionnaire with a narrative of the road trip Luiselli takes with her husband and family, across America, while they (both Mexican citizens) wait for their own Green Card applications to be processed. It is on this trip when Luiselli reflects on the thousands of migrant children mysteriously traveling across the border by themselves. But the real point of the essay is to actually delve into the real stories of some of these children, which are agonizing, as well as to gravely, clearly expose what literally happens, procedural, when they do arrive—from forms to courts, as they’re swallowed by a bureaucratic vortex. Amid all of this, Luiselli also takes on more, exploring the larger contextual relationship between the United States of America and Mexico (as well as other countries in Central America, more broadly) as it has evolved to our current, adverse moment. Tell Me How It Ends is so small, but it is so passionate and vigorous: it desperately accomplishes in its less-than-100-pages-of-prose what centuries and miles and endless records of federal bureaucracy have never been able, and have never cared, to do: reverse the dehumanization of Latin American immigrants that occurs once they set foot in this country. –Olivia Rutigliano, CrimeReads Editorial Fellow
Zadie Smith, Feel Free (2018)
In the essay “Meet Justin Bieber!” in Feel Free , Zadie Smith writes that her interest in Justin Bieber is not an interest in the interiority of the singer himself, but in “the idea of the love object”. This essay—in which Smith imagines a meeting between Bieber and the late philosopher Martin Buber (“Bieber and Buber are alternative spellings of the same German surname,” she explains in one of many winning footnotes. “Who am I to ignore these hints from the universe?”). Smith allows that this premise is a bit premise -y: “I know, I know.” Still, the resulting essay is a very funny, very smart, and un-tricky exploration of individuality and true “meeting,” with a dash of late capitalism thrown in for good measure. The melding of high and low culture is the bread and butter of pretty much every prestige publication on the internet these days (and certainly of the Twitter feeds of all “public intellectuals”), but the essays in Smith’s collection don’t feel familiar—perhaps because hers is, as we’ve long known, an uncommon skill. Though I believe Smith could probably write compellingly about anything, she chooses her subjects wisely. She writes with as much electricity about Brexit as the aforementioned Beliebers—and each essay is utterly engrossing. “She contains multitudes, but her point is we all do,” writes Hermione Hoby in her review of the collection in The New Republic . “At the same time, we are, in our endless difference, nobody but ourselves.” –Jessie Gaynor, Social Media Editor
Tressie McMillan Cottom, Thick: And Other Essays (2019)
Tressie McMillan Cottom is an academic who has transcended the ivory tower to become the sort of public intellectual who can easily appear on radio or television talk shows to discuss race, gender, and capitalism. Her collection of essays reflects this duality, blending scholarly work with memoir to create a collection on the black female experience in postmodern America that’s “intersectional analysis with a side of pop culture.” The essays range from an analysis of sexual violence, to populist politics, to social media, but in centering her own experiences throughout, the collection becomes something unlike other pieces of criticism of contemporary culture. In explaining the title, she reflects on what an editor had said about her work: “I was too readable to be academic, too deep to be popular, too country black to be literary, and too naïve to show the rigor of my thinking in the complexity of my prose. I had wanted to create something meaningful that sounded not only like me, but like all of me. It was too thick.” One of the most powerful essays in the book is “Dying to be Competent” which begins with her unpacking the idiocy of LinkedIn (and the myth of meritocracy) and ends with a description of her miscarriage, the mishandling of black woman’s pain, and a condemnation of healthcare bureaucracy. A finalist for the 2019 National Book Award for Nonfiction, Thick confirms McMillan Cottom as one of our most fearless public intellectuals and one of the most vital. –Emily Firetog, Deputy Editor
The following books were just barely nudged out of the top ten, but we (or at least one of us) couldn’t let them pass without comment.
Elif Batuman, The Possessed (2010)
In The Possessed Elif Batuman indulges her love of Russian literature and the result is hilarious and remarkable. Each essay of the collection chronicles some adventure or other that she had while in graduate school for Comparative Literature and each is more unpredictable than the next. There’s the time a “well-known 20th-centuryist” gave a graduate student the finger; and the time when Batuman ended up living in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, for a summer; and the time that she convinced herself Tolstoy was murdered and spent the length of the Tolstoy Conference in Yasnaya Polyana considering clues and motives. Rich in historic detail about Russian authors and literature and thoughtfully constructed, each essay is an amalgam of critical analysis, cultural criticism, and serious contemplation of big ideas like that of identity, intellectual legacy, and authorship. With wit and a serpentine-like shape to her narratives, Batuman adopts a form reminiscent of a Socratic discourse, setting up questions at the beginning of her essays and then following digressions that more or less entreat the reader to synthesize the answer for herself. The digressions are always amusing and arguably the backbone of the collection, relaying absurd anecdotes with foreign scholars or awkward, surreal encounters with Eastern European strangers. Central also to the collection are Batuman’s intellectual asides where she entertains a theory—like the “problem of the person”: the inability to ever wholly capture one’s character—that ultimately layer the book’s themes. “You are certainly my most entertaining student,” a professor said to Batuman. But she is also curious and enthusiastic and reflective and so knowledgeable that she might even convince you (she has me!) that you too love Russian literature as much as she does. –Eleni Theodoropoulos, Editorial Fellow
Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist (2014)
Roxane Gay’s now-classic essay collection is a book that will make you laugh, think, cry, and then wonder, how can cultural criticism be this fun? My favorite essays in the book include Gay’s musings on competitive Scrabble, her stranded-in-academia dispatches, and her joyous film and television criticism, but given the breadth of topics Roxane Gay can discuss in an entertaining manner, there’s something for everyone in this one. This book is accessible because feminism itself should be accessible – Roxane Gay is as likely to draw inspiration from YA novels, or middle-brow shows about friendship, as she is to introduce concepts from the academic world, and if there’s anyone I trust to bridge the gap between high culture, low culture, and pop culture, it’s the Goddess of Twitter. I used to host a book club dedicated to radical reads, and this was one of the first picks for the club; a week after the book club met, I spied a few of the attendees meeting in the café of the bookstore, and found out that they had bonded so much over discussing Bad Feminist that they couldn’t wait for the next meeting of the book club to keep discussing politics and intersectionality, and that, in a nutshell, is the power of Roxane. –Molly Odintz, CrimeReads Associate Editor
Rivka Galchen, Little Labors (2016)
Generally, I find stories about the trials and tribulations of child-having to be of limited appeal—useful, maybe, insofar as they offer validation that other people have also endured the bizarre realities of living with a tiny human, but otherwise liable to drift into the musings of parents thrilled at the simple fact of their own fecundity, as if they were the first ones to figure the process out (or not). But Little Labors is not simply an essay collection about motherhood, perhaps because Galchen initially “didn’t want to write about” her new baby—mostly, she writes, “because I had never been interested in babies, or mothers; in fact, those subjects had seemed perfectly not interesting to me.” Like many new mothers, though, Galchen soon discovered her baby—which she refers to sometimes as “the puma”—to be a preoccupying thought, demanding to be written about. Galchen’s interest isn’t just in her own progeny, but in babies in literature (“Literature has more dogs than babies, and also more abortions”), The Pillow Book , the eleventh-century collection of musings by Sei Shōnagon, and writers who are mothers. There are sections that made me laugh out loud, like when Galchen continually finds herself in an elevator with a neighbor who never fails to remark on the puma’s size. There are also deeper, darker musings, like the realization that the baby means “that it’s not permissible to die. There are days when this does not feel good.” It is a slim collection that I happened to read at the perfect time, and it remains one of my favorites of the decade. –Emily Firetog, Deputy Editor
Charlie Fox, This Young Monster (2017)
On social media as in his writing, British art critic Charlie Fox rejects lucidity for allusion and doesn’t quite answer the Twitter textbox’s persistent question: “What’s happening?” These days, it’s hard to tell. This Young Monster (2017), Fox’s first book,was published a few months after Donald Trump’s election, and at one point Fox takes a swipe at a man he judges “direct from a nightmare and just a repulsive fucking goon.” Fox doesn’t linger on politics, though, since most of the monsters he looks at “embody otherness and make it into art, ripping any conventional idea of beauty to shreds and replacing it with something weird and troubling of their own invention.”
If clichés are loathed because they conform to what philosopher Georges Bataille called “the common measure,” then monsters are rebellious non-sequiturs, comedic or horrific derailments from a classical ideal. Perverts in the most literal sense, monsters have gone astray from some “proper” course. The book’s nine chapters, which are about a specific monster or type of monster, are full of callbacks to familiar and lesser-known media. Fox cites visual art, film, songs, and books with the screwy buoyancy of a savant. Take one of his essays, “Spook House,” framed as a stage play with two principal characters, Klaus (“an intoxicated young skinhead vampire”) and Hermione (“a teen sorceress with green skin and jet-black hair” who looks more like The Wicked Witch than her namesake). The chorus is a troupe of trick-or-treaters. Using the filmmaker Cameron Jamie as a starting point, the rest is free association on gothic decadence and Detroit and L.A. as cities of the dead. All the while, Klaus quotes from Artforum , Dazed & Confused , and Time Out. It’s a technical feat that makes fictionalized dialogue a conveyor belt for cultural criticism.
In Fox’s imagination, David Bowie and the Hydra coexist alongside Peter Pan, Dennis Hopper, and the maenads. Fox’s book reaches for the monster’s mask, not really to peel it off but to feel and smell the rubber schnoz, to know how it’s made before making sure it’s still snugly set. With a stylistic blend of arthouse suavity and B-movie chic, This Young Monster considers how monsters in culture are made. Aren’t the scariest things made in post-production? Isn’t the creature just duplicity, like a looping choir or a dubbed scream? –Aaron Robertson, Assistant Editor
Elena Passarello, Animals Strike Curious Poses (2017)
Elena Passarello’s collection of essays Animals Strike Curious Poses picks out infamous animals and grants them the voice, narrative, and history they deserve. Not only is a collection like this relevant during the sixth extinction but it is an ambitious historical and anthropological undertaking, which Passarello has tackled with thorough research and a playful tone that rather than compromise her subject, complicates and humanizes it. Passarello’s intention is to investigate the role of animals across the span of human civilization and in doing so, to construct a timeline of humanity as told through people’s interactions with said animals. “Of all the images that make our world, animal images are particularly buried inside us,” Passarello writes in her first essay, to introduce us to the object of the book and also to the oldest of her chosen characters: Yuka, a 39,000-year-old mummified woolly mammoth discovered in the Siberian permafrost in 2010. It was an occasion so remarkable and so unfathomable given the span of human civilization that Passarello says of Yuka: “Since language is epically younger than both thought and experience, ‘woolly mammoth’ means, to a human brain, something more like time.” The essay ends with a character placing a hand on a cave drawing of a woolly mammoth, accompanied by a phrase which encapsulates the author’s vision for the book: “And he becomes the mammoth so he can envision the mammoth.” In Passarello’s hands the imagined boundaries between the animal, natural, and human world disintegrate and what emerges is a cohesive if baffling integrated history of life. With the accuracy and tenacity of a journalist and the spirit of a storyteller, Elena Passarello has assembled a modern bestiary worthy of contemplation and awe. –Eleni Theodoropoulos, Editorial Fellow
Esmé Weijun Wang, The Collected Schizophrenias (2019)
Esmé Weijun Wang’s collection of essays is a kaleidoscopic look at mental health and the lives affected by the schizophrenias. Each essay takes on a different aspect of the topic, but you’ll want to read them together for a holistic perspective. Esmé Weijun Wang generously begins The Collected Schizophrenias by acknowledging the stereotype, “Schizophrenia terrifies. It is the archetypal disorder of lunacy.” From there, she walks us through the technical language, breaks down the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual ( DSM-5 )’s clinical definition. And then she gets very personal, telling us about how she came to her own diagnosis and the way it’s touched her daily life (her relationships, her ideas about motherhood). Esmé Weijun Wang is uniquely situated to write about this topic. As a former lab researcher at Stanford, she turns a precise, analytical eye to her experience while simultaneously unfolding everything with great patience for her reader. Throughout, she brilliantly dissects the language around mental health. (On saying “a person living with bipolar disorder” instead of using “bipolar” as the sole subject: “…we are not our diseases. We are instead individuals with disorders and malfunctions. Our conditions lie over us like smallpox blankets; we are one thing and the illness is another.”) She pinpoints the ways she arms herself against anticipated reactions to the schizophrenias: high fashion, having attended an Ivy League institution. In a particularly piercing essay, she traces mental illness back through her family tree. She also places her story within more mainstream cultural contexts, calling on groundbreaking exposés about the dangerous of institutionalization and depictions of mental illness in television and film (like the infamous Slender Man case, in which two young girls stab their best friend because an invented Internet figure told them to). At once intimate and far-reaching, The Collected Schizophrenias is an informative and important (and let’s not forget artful) work. I’ve never read a collection quite so beautifully-written and laid-bare as this. –Katie Yee, Book Marks Assistant Editor
Ross Gay, The Book of Delights (2019)
When Ross Gay began writing what would become The Book of Delights, he envisioned it as a project of daily essays, each focused on a moment or point of delight in his day. This plan quickly disintegrated; on day four, he skipped his self-imposed assignment and decided to “in honor and love, delight in blowing it off.” (Clearly, “blowing it off” is a relative term here, as he still produced the book.) Ross Gay is a generous teacher of how to live, and this moment of reveling in self-compassion is one lesson among many in The Book of Delights , which wanders from moments of connection with strangers to a shade of “red I don’t think I actually have words for,” a text from a friend reading “I love you breadfruit,” and “the sun like a guiding hand on my back, saying everything is possible. Everything .”
Gay does not linger on any one subject for long, creating the sense that delight is a product not of extenuating circumstances, but of our attention; his attunement to the possibilities of a single day, and awareness of all the small moments that produce delight, are a model for life amid the warring factions of the attention economy. These small moments range from the physical–hugging a stranger, transplanting fig cuttings–to the spiritual and philosophical, giving the impression of sitting beside Gay in his garden as he thinks out loud in real time. It’s a privilege to listen. –Corinne Segal, Senior Editor
A selection of other books that we seriously considered for both lists—just to be extra about it (and because decisions are hard).
Terry Castle, The Professor and Other Writings (2010) · Joyce Carol Oates, In Rough Country (2010) · Geoff Dyer, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition (2011) · Christopher Hitchens, Arguably (2011) · Roberto Bolaño, tr. Natasha Wimmer, Between Parentheses (2011) · Dubravka Ugresic, tr. David Williams, Karaoke Culture (2011) · Tom Bissell, Magic Hours (2012) · Kevin Young, The Grey Album (2012) · William H. Gass, Life Sentences: Literary Judgments and Accounts (2012) · Mary Ruefle, Madness, Rack, and Honey (2012) · Herta Müller, tr. Geoffrey Mulligan, Cristina and Her Double (2013) · Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams (2014) · Meghan Daum, The Unspeakable (2014) · Daphne Merkin, The Fame Lunches (2014) · Charles D’Ambrosio, Loitering (2015) · Wendy Walters, Multiply/Divide (2015) · Colm Tóibín, On Elizabeth Bishop (2015) · Renee Gladman, Calamities (2016) · Jesmyn Ward, ed. The Fire This Time (2016) · Lindy West, Shrill (2016) · Mary Oliver, Upstream (2016) · Emily Witt, Future Sex (2016) · Olivia Laing, The Lonely City (2016) · Mark Greif, Against Everything (2016) · Durga Chew-Bose, Too Much and Not the Mood (2017) · Sarah Gerard, Sunshine State (2017) · Jim Harrison, A Really Big Lunch (2017) · J.M. Coetzee, Late Essays: 2006-2017 (2017) · Melissa Febos, Abandon Me (2017) · Louise Glück, American Originality (2017) · Joan Didion, South and West (2017) · Tom McCarthy, Typewriters, Bombs, Jellyfish (2017) · Hanif Abdurraqib, They Can’t Kill Us Until they Kill Us (2017) · Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power (2017) · Samantha Irby, We Are Never Meeting in Real Life (2017) · Alexander Chee, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel (2018) · Alice Bolin, Dead Girls (2018) · Marilynne Robinson, What Are We Doing Here? (2018) · Lorrie Moore, See What Can Be Done (2018) · Maggie O’Farrell, I Am I Am I Am (2018) · Ijeoma Oluo, So You Want to Talk About Race (2018) · Rachel Cusk, Coventry (2019) · Jia Tolentino, Trick Mirror (2019) · Emily Bernard, Black is the Body (2019) · Toni Morrison, The Source of Self-Regard (2019) · Margaret Renkl, Late Migrations (2019) · Rachel Munroe, Savage Appetites (2019) · Robert A. Caro, Working (2019) · Arundhati Roy, My Seditious Heart (2019).
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Make Lists, Not War
The meta-lists website, best essays of all time – ranked.
A reader suggested I create a meta-list of the best essays of all time, so I did. I found over 12 best essays lists and several essay anthologies and combined the essays into one meta-list. The meta-list below includes every essay that was on at least two of the original source lists. They are organized by rank, that is, with the essays on the most lists at the top. To see the same list organized chronologically, go HERE .
Note 1: Some of the essays are actually chapters from books. In such cases, I have identified the source book.
Note 2: Some of the essays are book-length, such as Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own . One book listed as an essay by two listers – Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet – is also regularly categorized as a work of fiction.
On 11 lists James Baldwin – Notes of a Native Son (1955)
On 6 lists George Orwell – Shooting an Elephant (1936) E.B. White – Once More to the Lake (1941) Joan Didion – Goodbye To All That (1968)
On 5 lists Joan Didion – On Keeping A Notebook (1968) Annie Dillard – Total Eclipse (1982) Jo Ann Beard – The Fourth State of Matter (1996) David Foster Wallace – A Supposedly Fun Thing I Will Never Do Again (1996)
On 4 lists William Hazlitt – On the Pleasure of Hating (1823) Ralph Waldo Emerson – Self-Reliance (1841) Virginia Woolf – A Room of One’s Own (1928) Virginia Woolf – The Death of a Moth (1942) George Orwell – Such, Such Were the Joys (1952) Joan Didion – In Bed (1968) Amy Tan – Mother Tongue (1991) David Foster Wallace – Consider The Lobster (2005)
On 3 lists Jonathan Swift – A Modest Proposal (1729) Virginia Woolf – Street Haunting: A London Adventure (1930) John McPhee – The Search for Marvin Gardens (1972) Joan Didion – The White Album (1968-1978) Eudora Welty – The Little Store (1978) Phillip Lopate – Against Joie de Vivre (1989)
On 2 lists Sei Shonagon – Hateful Things (from The Pillow Book ) (1002) Yoshida Kenko – Essays in Idleness (1332) Michel de Montaigne – On Some Verses of Virgil (1580) Robert Burton – Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) John Milton – Areopagitica (1644) William Hazlitt – On Going a Journey (1822) Charles Lamb – The Superannuated Man (1823) Henry David Thoreau – Civil Disobedience (1849) Henry David Thoreau – Where I Lived, and What I Lived For (from Walden ) (1854) Henry David Thoreau – Economy (from Walden ) (1854) Henry David Thoreau – Walking (1861) Robert Louis Stevenson – The Lantern-Bearers (1888) Zora Neale Hurston – How It Feels to Be Colored Me (1928) George Orwell – A Hanging (1931) Junichiro Tanizaki – In Praise of Shadows (1933) Fernando Pessoa – The Book of Disquiet (1935) James Agee and Walker Evans – Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941) Simone Weil – On Human Personality (1943) M.F.K. Fisher – The Flaw (1943) Vladimir Nabokov – Speak, Memory (1951, revised 1966) Mary McCarthy – Artists in Uniform: A Story (1953) E.B. White – Goodbye to Forty-Eighth Street (1957) Martin Luther King, Jr. – Letter from Birmingham Jail (1963) Joseph Mitchell – Joe Gould’s Secret (1964) Susan Sontag – Against Interpretation (1966) Edward Hoagland – The Courage of Turtles (1970) Annie Dillard – Seeing (from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek ) (1974) Maxine Hong Kingston – No Name Woman (from The Woman Warrior ) (1976) Roland Barthes – Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (1982) Annie Dillard – Living Like Weasels (1982) Gloria E. Anzaldúa – How to Tame a Wild Tongue (1987) Italo Calvino – Exactitude (1988) Richard Rodriguez – Late Victorians (1990) David Wojnarowicz – Being Queer in America: A Journal of Disintegration (1991) Seymour Krim – To My Brothers & Sisters in the Failure Business (1991) Anne Carson – The Anthropology of Water (1995) Susan Sontag – Regarding the Pain of Others (2003) Etel Adnan – In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country (2005) Paul LaFarge – Destroy All Monsters (2006) Brian Doyle – Joyas Voladoras (2012)
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25 great articles and essays about history, the day the mesozoic died by sean b. carroll, the day the dinosaurs died by douglas preston, neanderthals were people, too by jon mooallem, sleeping with the enemy by elizabeth kolbert, 1491 by charles c. mann, the case against civilization by john lanchester, japanese roots by jared diamond, ten thousand years of solitude by jared diamond, the worst mistake in history by jared diamond, the origins of agriculture by jared diamond, ancient history, divergence by jared diamond, the big dig by elif batuman, easter's end by jared diamond, evolutionary history, restless genes by david dobbs, the search for adam and eve by john tierney, how africa became black by jared diamond, a history of violence by steven pinker, what have we learned, if anything by tony judt, the problem of evil by tony judt, the gun by c.j. chivers, does it help to know history by adam gopnik, 150 great articles and essays.
The arrow of disease by jared diamond, native intelligence by charles c. mann, how slavery really ended in america by adam goodheart, the case for reparations by ta-nehisi coates, last days of the comanches by s. c. gwynne, modern history, a brief history of the corporation by venkat rao, how to get rich by jared diamond, the reunification by klaus wiegrefe, germany's unlikely diplomatic triumph by klaus wiegrefe, guns, germs, and steel by jared diamond, the gun by c. j. chivers, a history of the world in 100 objects by neil macgregor, salt: a world history by mark kurlansky, in the garden of beasts by erik larson, postwar: a history of europe since 1945 by tony judt, bury my heart at wounded knee by dee brown, subscribe to our email newsletter.
From the works and musings of Walt Witman to those of Virginia Woolf, some of the cultural heroes and prolific artists of prose are listed below--along with some of the world's greatest essays and speeches ever composed by these British and American literary treasures. George Ade (1866-1944)
Essays on Poetic Theory. This section collects famous historical essays about poetry that have greatly influenced the art. Written by poets and critics from a wide range of historical, cultural, and aesthetic perspectives, the essays address the purpose of poetry, the possibilities of language, and the role of the poet in the world.
40 Best Essays Ever Written (With Links And Writing Tips) 1. David Sedaris – Laugh, Kookaburra A great family drama takes place against the backdrop of the Australian wilderness. And the Kookaburra laughs… This is one of the best essays of the lot.
For if she begins to tell the truth, the figure in the looking-glass shrinks; his fitness in life is diminished. How is he to go on giving judgment, civilising natives, making laws, writing books, dressing up and speechifying at banquets, unless he can see himself at breakfast and at dinner at least twice the size he really is?”
In her introduction to The Best American Essays 1988, Annie Dillard claims that “The essay can do everything a poem can do, and everything a short story can do—everything but fake it.” Her...
In a world where we are so often reduced to one essential self, Hilton Als’ breathtaking book of critical essays, White Girls, which meditates on the ways he and other subjects read, project and absorb parts of white femininity, is a radically liberating book.
Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked, Part 1. Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked, Part 2. Best Works of Art of All Time – Ranked, Part 3. Art History 101 – Part IA: Prehistoric Era – 399 CE. Art History 101 – Part IB: 400 CE – 1399 CE. Art History 101 – Part IIA: 1400-1499. Art History 101 – Part IIB: 1500-1599.
25 Great Articles and Essays about History The best examples of short articles and essays about history from around the net Prehistory The Day the Mesozoic Died by Sean B. Carroll How the story of the dinosaurs' demise was uncovered The Day the Dinosaurs Died by Douglas Preston