Academic Decathlon 2018-2019 Speech “Literature and Why We Need It”

I wanted this speech to be a reflection of something I care deeply about, as well as something that was relevant to the lives of the judges at Academic Decathlon. I came up with this idea as I was in an argument about the relevancy of Fahrenheit 451. I wanted so badly to find a way to express what I was trying to communicate, and I later went home to write this speech.


Literature and Why We Need It

Ralph Ellison states, “Literature is integrated, and I’m not just talking about color or race. I’m talking about the power of literature to make us recognize – again and again – the wholeness of the human experience.” Ralph Ellison is the author of several classic novels, including one of his most notable entitled Invisible Man. Invisible Man has a 3.8 rating on Goodreads, and its review section, if separated into positive and negative opinions, averages either 5 stars if praised and 1.5 stars if condemned. 

My experience with Invisible Man was that of the 1.5 reviewers. After much analysis, both historically and morally, my opinion was not raised, but it was changed. Initially, I was unimpressed; I was confused by the complex narration, and disturbed by both the violence and the crudeness. According to the reviewers on Goodreads.com, I wasn’t the only one. However, after studying, my appreciation of the text grew far past the fact that I simply did not enjoy the story. 

The appearance of literature in education, careers, and daily life should be an example of the immense amount of good it can do. However, I continually find myself coming across a review that condemns a text on the basis of being plain, monotonous, or confusing. I’m before you today to talk about why, even in the case of a piece of literature we don’t understand or appreciate or like, we must regard it as what it truly is: life-changing. 

Literature is life-changing because it can describe some of the most harrowing events in human history. Historical novels such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Diary of Anne Frank contain the world’s history, they speak of our race’s capacity to withstand brutality, and they remember those who need to be remembered. These books, and many others, continuously remind and teach us of the evil cycles of oppression and supremacy that paved the way for us be capable of embracing today’s freedom. It is through literature that we have learned of the people that brought this world into what it is today, whether it be soldiers, CEOs, or simple civilians. When a book is not labeled worthwhile, an entire piece of history, of experience, becomes lost. The author Connie Willis implores us to partake of the history given to us, writing: “That’s what literature is. It’s the people who went before us, tapping out messages from the past, from beyond the grave, trying to tell us about life and death! Listen to them!” 

Moreover, literature is life-changing because it can bring comfort to the heartsick. F. Scott Fitzgerald, the author of the novel entitled The Great Gatsby once stated: “That is the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.” It is through literature that an experience is shared, is unburdened from a reader’s shoulders, and is let go. When an individual calls a book meaningless or confusing, there exists another who received strength and inspiration in its message. In what I consider one of the darkest times of my life, I found solace from the trauma, the fear, and the guilt in novels such as Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli, and The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. I found companionship from the familiar, nostalgic text of both the Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings. When I was hiding from the chemical imbalance written into my genetics, I was inspired by the example of Jane Eyre’s independence, Scout Finch’s hope, and Hester Prynne’s strength, despite the condemnation of their stories as either too plain, too old, or irrelevant. These books taught me to continue, and thanks to them I do.

Ultimately, literature is the backbone of free thought; it is the mediator of conflict; and it is the personal, heartfelt cry of humanity. It is an art that can be understood in every language, every culture, and every nation. Literature is an earth-shattering, glass-breaking, and freedom-bringing form of pure expression. Without it, even the thick, the tedious, and the mediocre kind, we would not have The United States’ Constitution, world-wide religious texts, nor the ability to record our own experiences, thoughts, and memories. Without literature we would not be here, learning how to find joy in learning and in each other. Without literature, I would not be standing before you with the accomplishments I have made or with the aspirations I am working towards. Without literature, what would we celebrate? What would we remember? Most importantly, what would we learn?

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