5 Essays You MUST Read Before You Die

At the end of In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote, the reader finds himself feeling sympathy for the cold-blooded murders who serve as the antagonists (or protagonists?) of the story. The book’s author forces the reader to severely question whether the murderers are themselves to blame for the crime they committed–or whether it was a cold and indifferent society that finally drove these men to commit such a heinous crime.

It is no wonder the book was so popular during Capote’s time, and why, in the past decade, not one, but two Hollywood films were made to depict Capote’s journey as he wrote the book. Capote’s famous book tells a story that sticks to you, till you can’t let it go. It rubs you the wrong way, in all the right ways, if that makes any sense. It’s hard to explain, but the truth is that all great novels do that to you.

Whether you realize it or not, all great novels are making an argument, and through the use of storytelling, authors sometimes drive their argument home a lot better than most lawyers or politicians do.

As a writer, it’s your job to learn how to make a good argument, and that’s why today I’m going to recommend 5 Essays that will teach you the art of making a persuasive argument. Here they are, The 5 Essays You MUST Read Before You Die:

(It’s hard to categorize all these works as “essays” specifically, because each of them is unique in its own way. My qualification was to simply mention works that make good arguments, that focus more on making arguments than on JUST telling a story, and that tend to be more non-fiction than fiction.)

The Last Generation by Cherrie Moraga

If you want to get to know the most underrated and overlooked thinker and philosopher of our times, look no further than Moraga. When those in the 80’s and 90’s declared that the old culture wars were over, Moraga kept insisting that the culture, gender, and race divides still existed, and that our social and economic institutions were still carrying the inequalities and injustices of the past. She was bold enough to point out the indescribable push and pull that was still brewing just beneath the surface. While everyone stayed quiet in the 80’s and 90’s, she was one of the few who kept speaking up and demanding equality and justice for women, gays, and Latinos–all over the world. Nobody seemed to listen, but those who ignored her would pay the price.

Now it’s 2011, and what do you know? She was right. The old culture wars are back, much to the dismay of the older generation, and much to the confusion and exasperation of the younger generation. As America moves forward, and identities continue to intermix and clash, the only woman who has created a road map that can help us understand it all is Moraga. She’s understood, for decades, where the point of each part of our identity–racial, cultural, sexual–meets: at the heart.

Maybe it’s too much to say that her bold essays about her biracial identity (she’s half-Mexican and half-white) helped paved the way for other biracial leaders such as Barack Obama. But even so, you cannot ignore the fact that she broke ground in that arena. She was and is a trailblazer.

Although this book of essays, poetry and prose mourns the passing of a generation that fought bravely for a progressive agenda, and fears that the next generation has failed to follow in those progressive footsteps, she still inadvertently {or maybe intentionally} created a bridge between that old generation and the next one. She’s the missing link between the activist writers of the 1960’s and the young writers of today, who are barely wetting their lips and hoping to speak as bravely and as unforgivingly as she has done.

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

For Baldwin to argue that segregation and racism was as poisonous to white people as it was to black people, and to do it in a way that offered the utmost compassion and love to the people who hated him just for the color of his skin, was a bold move to say the least. We won’t argue his skill with words here, that’s always been obvious, but Baldwin is probably one of the best at crafting a skillful and persuasive argument–without even making it seem like he’s making an argument. You leave his work absolutely clear of what he said and knowing–not just believing–that what he said was right.

I learned from Baldwin that there is an incredibly persuasive power behind unconstrained empathy, and that pure, achingly truthful, wisdom can silence all opposition.

Symposium by Plato

Ever wonder why you always feel this pressure to search for your “soul mate” or that guy or gal who will one day “complete you”? If you feel that pressure, then you can thank Plato. His work,  The Symposium, is a must read, if only to learn how and why it was first argued that each of us has a soul mate we must be reunited with.

The fact that we all still carry the “soul mate” belief with us today, a belief that was first created around 300 B.C., shows you Plato’s ability to make a strong, persuasive argument that has captured the imagination of western civilization for ages.

A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift

You want to know the precursor to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert? Here he is. I mean, this guy proposed that the English eat their babies, all while keeping a straight face!  That’s hilarious!

Swift teaches us that comedy can be genius and that sarcasm can provide a far more convincing argument than the old, boring, and direct way of doing things. He also taught us that satire can be shockingly revealing about a culture’s narrow-minded beliefs.

The Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson

If you haven’t read it since High School, and you’ve forgotten what it says, you need to read it again. Seriously.

Basically, if we all gathered together today, felt we really didn’t like who was in charge, decided to overthrow the American government, and then establish a whole new government from scratch, Thomas Jefferson would rise from his grave, punch his fist in the air and say:


Only Americans, of all the people who have ever lived in the history of the world, would find that imagined situation normal. We seem to forget how unique we are and how very rare it is that our founding fathers would not only approve of, but be encouraging of a mass rebellion if we ever felt like it. We hold the right to overthrow our government even today, thanks mainly to Jefferson and his AMAZING and convincing argument in favor of people having the right to defy their government when they feel it has treated them unfairly.

Americans may be one of the few citizens of the world who feel like it’s their right to challenge authority, and it’s all thanks to this guy named Tom and an argument he made not too long ago.

much love,


What essays do you think everyone should read before they die?

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11 comments on “5 Essays You MUST Read Before You Die

  1. Jillian says:

    Great suggestions, Ollin.

    I think everyone must read A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft, and Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau.


    • Ollin says:

      HDT is my man. I mentioned Walden in my non-fiction book recommendations, but if you haven’t read Civil Disobedience it is a MUST read.

  2. jesswords10 says:

    I LOVE A MODEST PROPOSAL!!! Great recommendation; I’m quite pleased that made the list.

  3. Pico says:

    I HAD to the read this post, if only because of the commanding MUST! Haha, kidding, I love my capitals.

    I LOVE the way you talk about all novels having an argument- I totally agree, but I’ve never been to express it as clearly as you do. I’ve only read two of these- Swift (as soon as you hear about eating human babies, you’re compelled to read this one lol) and the Declaration. Which is beautiful and inspiring- and even though I’m Australian I’m always a bit touched by it, whenever I read it.

    I would disagree that Americans are alone in having the idea of challenging government authority in their national make up. For example, the French Revolution gave the French anything I reckon it was the importance and power of challenging authority. Of course things went far more horribly wrong in France than in the US, but I think that legacy of questioning remains in French politics. In Australia we’re not big on challenging authority, I think. We’re bigger on ignoring it. Haha. So I agree that there is definitely a difference between nations.

    What I find interesting about America was that it was the first nation to write down a constitution. It seems so natural now that a country would have a piece of paper outlining how matters would be arranged- but the rest of the world probably owes America one for that one. 😉

    I’ve made a note to read the plato and moraga essays- they sound fascinating! Oops. Long comment. :O

    • Ollin says:

      Great point! Thanks for disagreeing with me. You are right. The French have a tradition of challenging authority, and thanks for letting me know about Australians and their way of ignoring authority, lol.

      Long comments are always welcome!

      Thank you for your input.

  4. Cities of the Mind says:

    Great selection! I prefer Paine’s Common Sense, which started the revolution that lead to Jefferson’s document–although I can’t adequately frame my admiration for Jefferson. Oh, and Letter from the Birmingham Jail is certainly worthy of consideration.

    I might also choose to add Asimov’s Relativity of Wrong: http://chem.tufts.edu/AnswersInScience/RelativityofWrong.htm

    And the Gettysburg Address is worth, at the least, a read-through, “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

    I hold essays to be (potentially) the highest form of literature, for my part, because many have accomplished so very much within such a small frame. They reflect the power of words more perfectly than any other form of writing–save perhaps for a very few poems. For all that writing is used mainly as an informative or entertaining venue, it is its ability to voice the deeper needs of the people which earns it the right to dedicate most its time to frivolity and justifies the emphasis on literacy so prevalent in the modern world.

    • Ollin says:

      Wow. That was an amazing defense of the essay Connor! I completely agree. I think an essay could be hidden in a poem or a fiction novel, but I think the important part is that it has a convincing argument. And a persuasive argument is always something I admire and try to work for.

      Thanks for those suggestions, I’ll have to add them to my list!

  5. Great list Ollin!
    I do echo Pico’s sentiments though. The right and ability to challenge government is a cornerstone of democracy. We all (in true democratic countries) have it, and I suspect (and hope) that we will all be challenging our governments more in the future on important issues such as climate change and human rights. Tunisia, Egypt, and other countries in the middle east are giving us a big lesson in what is possible…
    So before I go on a rant, I will sign off with thank you for sharing. I’ll look forward to checking these out!

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