TED’s holiday book list: 68 reads that will inspire you



For this year’s holiday book list, we asked TED speakers, educators and podcasters: “What books have inspired you?” We hope their recommendations will help you refresh and recharge.

You can skim the entire list, or use the links here to jump around to the different categories, which are: Business; Biographies and memoirs; Children’s books; Cookbooks and design; Current events; Essays and books on writing; Fiction; Graphic novels; History; Science, psychology and self-help.


Confessions of a Radical Industrialist: How Interface Proved That You Can Build a Successful Business Without Destroying the Planet by Ray C. Anderson
In 1994, Interface Founder Ray C. Anderson experienced a life-altering epiphany when he read The Ecology of Commerce by Paul Hawken. The book’s description of what happened to reindeers on “a little speck of rock in the Bering Sea” motivated Anderson to transform his take-make-waste carpet company into an environmentally sustainable corporation. As a businessperson and environmental scientist, I found Anderson’s quest for Interface to reach carbon neutrality by the year 2020 to be awe-inspiring. First read this book, then see if the company completed its Mission Zero by the target date here (and how):
— Christine Ladwig (TED-Ed Lesson: Ethical dilemma — the burger murders)

The Messy Middle: Finding Your Way Through the Hardest and Most Crucial Part of Any Bold Venture by Scott Belsky
A week doesn’t go by without my recommending this book to someone. Scott Belsky is a great storyteller who paints a vivid picture of how messy it is to create and innovate. Dealing with uncertainty often turns out to be messier than we anticipate, and those who are not prepared or who have the wrong expectations give up too quickly. We can achieve ground-breaking innovations only when we embrace uncertainty and set out to travel uncharted lands. Whether it’s in academia, business or any part of life, how we handle uncertainty defines the kind of impact we will have. I recommend this book to those venturing into the uncertain, to make sure they can withstand the messiness and emerge unscathed. (Read an excerpt here.)
— Ali Kashani (TED Talk: A friendly autonomous robot that delivers your food)

No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention by Reed Hastings (TED Talk: 3 secrets to Netflix’s success) and Erin Meyer
This is a book that I wish I had written. Stereotypes paint leaders as authoritative, dispassionate characters whose job is to make decisions and issue commands. With such images etched on our collective imagination, it is no surprise when some leaders imitate the stereotypes and I am inspired by books about highly successful leaders who break that mold. The Netflix CEO’s new book does just that — by painting a picture of a humanitarian-turned-entrepreneur who through failures and iterations has developed a leadership style that empowers teams to be autonomous, and thus highly creative, while also leaving space for compassion and vulnerability.
— Ali Kashani (TED Talk: A friendly autonomous robot that delivers your food)

Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion and Purpose by Tony Hsieh
What makes Tony Hsieh’s recounting of Zappos’s journey from start-up to billion-dollar company inspiring to me — and I hope to many — is the power of believing in your mission when you’re trying to accomplish something that hasn’t been done before. Hsieh believed that providing outstanding customer service and increasing employee engagement and happiness are two sides of the same thing, each fueling the other, and I totally agree. And when done right, they both fuel the bottom line.
— Gil Winch (TED Video: How we can use the hiring process to bring out the best in people)

The Cathedral Within: Transforming Your Life by Giving Something Back by Bill Shore
As we think about what it will take to build systems of equity in our world, this book is a great remember of what it takes. Imagine, as the book describes, the work of the great cathedral builders of the world. They were building a beautiful legacy of structures that they knew they might never see completion in their lifetimes, yet it never deterred them. They never stopped building. They kept building anyway … just as we need to do.
— Nita Mosby Tyler (TED Talk: Want a more just world? Be an unlikely ally)

Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance
Love him or hate him, you have to admit that Elon Musk has defied the odds to bring transformative innovations to market on Earth and in space. Vance’s biography shows Musk at his lowest points and culminates in his dual triumphs at Tesla and SpaceX. Musk is proof that it’s possible to pick the hardest problems — tackling climate change and making humanity a spacefaring civilization — and make meaningful progress through willpower, ingenuity and entrepreneurship.
— Varun Sivaram (TED Talk: How India could pull off the world’s most ambitious energy transition)

Biographies and Memoirs

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David Blight
If you’re not a professional historian and haven’t read a biography of Frederick Douglass, you may have a rather vague sense — as I did until recently — that Douglass was an “important” abolitionist writer and speaker. You’re also probably aware that he escaped from slavery as a young man. Blight’s account book brings this gifted, imperfect, extraordinary man to life. And oh what a life!
— John Biewen (TED Talk: The lie that invented racism)

So Many Olympic Exertions by Anelise Chen
I didn’t care about sports until I read Anelise Chen contemplate what it means to give up, to succumb and to push through all over again. The book dances between melancholy and humor and you immediately get into the rhythm of the jig.
— Mona Chalabi (TED Talk: 3 ways to stop a bad statistic)

The Choice: Embrace the Possible by Edith Eger
This is a beautiful memoir by a Holocaust survivor turned clinical psychologist, reminiscent of the great works of Anne Frank and Viktor Frankl. But it’s more than a book — it is a work of art. It gave me goosebumps, the kind that grace you in transcendent moments of appreciating a Mozart sonata, an Elizabeth Barrett Browning sonnet or the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
— Adam Grant (TED Talk: Are you a giver or a taker? and TED Podcast: Work Life with Adam Grant)

The Autobiography of Ben Franklin
Although an autobiography, this is also America’s first self-help book. By telling the story of his own life, Franklin inspires others to achieve success. I am especially grateful for the sacrifices he made during the founding of America.
— George Siedel (TED-Ed Lesson: Ethical dilemma — the burger murders)

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
This book was actually an “anti-inspiration” for me. After reading it, I realized I was so taken with Jobs’s genius I started to emulate him subconsciously at work — being more dismissive of my colleagues and trying to bend reality to my will. I realized it was not only jerk-like but bad for productivity. Almost always, the best and most transformative moves are made in groups, and it was then I drew the inspiration to truly create a bottom-up centered model at work, where I was aggregating inputs and empowering people instead of pushing them down.
— Neal Katyal (TED Talk: How to win an argument at the Supreme Court, or anywhere)

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
An autobiographical account by a physician-turned-patient diagnosed with a terminal illness, as well as his emotional and physical trials through that experience. Paul Kalanithi’s sad tale provides rare raw insight into the human experience of finality, with inspiration derived through tragedy. As a physician working and forever learning in the art of cancer care, I gained insight into the patient experience, which can be difficult to account for in the bustle of clinic and the internal challenges that often come with these experiences. This book vicariously motivates us to value what we should treasure most in our world.
— Hyunsoo Joshua No (TED-Ed Lesson: Performing brain surgery without a scalpel)

See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love by Valarie Kaur (TED Talk: 3 lessons of revolutionary love in a time of rage)
See No Stranger is a perfectly timed book. When others see America descending into darkness, Valarie Kaura asks us to reimagine ourselves, our connection to each other and society. She presents revolutionary love as the call of our time — reclaiming love from mere sentimentality and recasting it as a potent force for social change. When loving our enemy seems hard, she offers practical advice. This book is a must-have guide on how we can walk through this darkness together and emerge better than before.
— Nisha Anand (TED Talk: The radical act of choosing common ground)

Heavy by Kiese Laymon
This book would never end up in a section of a bookstore labeled “inspirational.” In fact, the author states early on that he wanted to write a more uplifting book — but it would’ve been a lie. This is the memoir of a young, overweight Black man growing up with a single mother in Mississippi, and it is, well, heavy. But as an act of honesty and courage, as a work of art and as a piece of writing that is often about the process of writing, I found it inspirational. I bet a lot of readers come away inspired to be a little more honest and a little more brave in how they tell their own stories.
— David Epstein (TED Talk: Why specializing early doesn’t always mean career success)

The Boat Who Wouldn’t Float by Farley Mowat
I’ve only read two writings in my life that caused me to spontaneously laugh-out-loud — the play The Odd Couple by Neil Simon and the Wouldn’t Float adventures of Canadian Farley McGill Mowat’s wayward schooner. Filled with light-hearted humor and inspiring characters — not the least of which is the boat Happy Adventure — this is a great reading experience which I highly recommend!
— Christine Ladwig (TED-Ed Lesson: Ethical dilemma — the burger murders)

Ecology of a Cracker Childhood by Janisse Ray
I fell deeply in love with this book as it switched between a memoir of a poor childhood in a junkyard and the raw beauty of a rare, long-pine ecosystem. It made me consider how rural America is filled with both stunning landscapes and meaningful, but also difficult lives and the strength to overcome. I now search for both when I am in those parts of the country.
— Leah Garcés (TED Talk: A lesson in turning adversaries into allies)

Save Me the Plums by Ruth Reichl
Save Me the Plums is the memoir of writer Ruth Reichl as she moves from the free-wheeling food scene of Berkeley, California, into the often baffling world of corporate media when she becomes the editor of Gourmet magazine. It is, at times, fun culinary escapism — you get to plod along next to her as she zigzags between Parisian bistros, sampling plats du jour and carafes of unlabeled red wine. It also sings a song of encouragement to female leaders, to people looking to pivot in their careers, and underlines the all-too-often overlooked importance of having a few good friends along for the ride. It also gave me a few deep belly laughs, and those will always cure what ails you.
— Erin Baumgartner (TED Talk: Big data, small farms and a tale of two tomatoes)

Walden by Henry Robert Thoreau
This book has inspired me to reevaluate the way I live and simplify my lifestyle. The lessons from Walden are especially relevant during the pandemic.
— George Siedel (TED-Ed Lesson: Ethical dilemma — the burger murders)

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf
A biography of the great adventurer, naturalist and ecologist Alexander von Hulmboldt. Living in an era and a social circle that is today, two centuries later, almost unimaginable, Von Humboldt was the world’s first great ecologist with global insights that foretold today’s environmental downfall. For me, Andrea Wulf brought to life the man whose name had always been familiar to me but whom I never really knew.
— Menno Schilthuizen (TED Talk: How animals and plants are evolving in cities)

Children’s Books

Love You Forever by Robert Munsch
A simple children’s book and one of the favorites of my own children. The story repeats in succession a mother’s personal nursery rhyme for her child as the family goes through multiple varying stages of life. Through its succinct simplicity, it characterizes the comfort of routine in our ever-changing world and inspires charging vehemently through life’s ambitions, knowing loved ones will provide stability. The story’s calming nature has brought inspiration in my life to help bolster my personal ambitions, while also recognizing the unconditional comfort of familial support and love.
— Hyunsoo Joshua No (TED-Ed Lesson: Performing brain surgery without a scalpel)

Cookbooks and Design

The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science by J. Kenji López-Alt
An inspiring cookbook? Huh? I often tell people that one of my biggest responsibilities is to provide my team with courage: The courage to try new things, to look for innovative solutions and — oh no! — to be wrong on occasion. For anyone who doesn’t cook or is new to cooking, failure often accompanies those first few omelettes. J. Kenji López-Alt speaks to me! He makes success and the pathway to achieve it clear and attainable. His instructions and explanations are provided with the care and thoughtfulness that any good leader should, but doesn’t always take the time to do. This book serves courage — and some great food!
— Tom Schuler (TED Talk: How we could make carbon-negative concrete)

The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design by Roman Mars (TED Talk: Why city flags may be the worst designed thing you’ve never noticed) and Kurt Kohlstedt
I usually read in bed, but now I tend to fall asleep so quickly that it’s difficult to read things like novels without forgetting the plot from one day to the next. This book — a spin off from an inspirational podcast — is perfect for dipping into. It introduces you to things in our everyday world that we’ve probably never thought about before, such as manhole covers, and celebrates them. The whole book is a marvelous celebration of all the creativity which goes into so many things around us.
— Karen Scrivener (TED Talk: A concrete idea to reduce carbon emissions)

Current Events

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
This book is a modern classic on race and incarceration, and if you haven’t read it, you’ve probably been told to read it. I’m going to be the next person to tell you that you definitely should. While it is not beyond reproach, no other book will wake you up to the horrors of the American carceral system. So just read it already!
— Lucas Husted (TED-Ed Lesson: Game theory challenge — can you predict human behavior?)

In the Ruins of Neoliberalism: The Rise of Antidemocratic Politics in the West by Wendy Brown
From its title, this book may look like a downer — but this relatively slender volume may inspire you to take action. Anyone paying attention in the US and elsewhere can see that democracy is fragile and under attack. Wendy Brown’s incisive analysis deepened my understanding of how and why that is happening.
— John Biewen (TED Talk: The lie that invented racism)

Jump-Starting America: How Breakthrough Science Can Revive Economic Growth and the American Dream by Jonathan Gruber and Simon Johnson
This is the book that inspired me to write my own newest book Energizing America. Here, Gruber and Johnson lay out a plan for the United States to invest $100 billion annually in research and development to jumpstart economic growth in an equitable way across American communities.
— Varun Sivaram (TED Talk: How India could pull off the world’s most ambitious energy transition)

Beyond the Messy Truth: How We Came Apart, How We Come Together by Van Jones (TED Talk: What if a US presidential candidate refuses to concede after an election?)
Beyond the Messy Truth is an honest, empathetic and solutions-oriented look at the divides in the current US political landscape and, more importantly, how to heal them. Van Jones examines both political parties and the people behind them, presenting a roadmap for coming together to solve our toughest problems. Looking beyond the tribalism of today, Jones calls for a “bipartisanship from below” and invites us to find common ground with unlikely allies. Full of real-life examples and critiques of current paradigms, this book is essential for all bridge-builders.
— Nisha Anand (TED Talk: The radical act of choosing common ground)

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson (TED Talk: We need to talk about an injustice)
This book is a searing, scathing examination of the national criminal justice system and the systemic racism that sits at its core. It is hauntingly sad and infuriating, but I saw it also as a call to action. It shows that even in the face of a system so impossibly large and complex, a small group of tirelessly dedicated people can make a difference. Bryan Stevenson inspires us to do something, anything, to fix the brokenness of inequity, and he showed me that doing nothing is simply not an option.
— Erin Baumgartner (TED Talk: Big data, small farms and a tale of two tomatoes)

Essays and Books on Writing

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
This summer, as Black Lives Matter protests gripped the nation, I retrieved an old, dog-eared copy of The Fire Next Time, a long-form essay exploring civil rights unrest published in 1963 by the incisive African-American writer James Baldwin. I turned once again to him — not for comfort but for understanding — and once again he did not disappoint. It inspired me to keep seeking truth and to keep speaking truth.
— Hasan Kwame Jeffries (TED Talk: Why we must confront the painful parts of US history)

Writing Tools: 55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark
I have a double life: I am a scientist and an educator. The first requires my writings to be clear, precise and succinct; the second prompts them to be more engaging, inspiring, challenging. Writing Tools taught me how to improve the writing skills I use daily in both of my endeavors, even in a language that is not my own. In this short review, I used 6 out of the 55 strategies presented in the book — can you spot them?
— Fabio Pacucci (TED-Ed Lesson: Could we harness the power of a black hole?)

Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower by Brittney Cooper (TED Talk: The racial politics of time)
This book was such a powerful read for me. It brought me back to Audre Lorde’s words in her essay/presentation “The Uses of Anger“. Brittney Cooper’s voice inspires the connection of head and heart to understand the world around us and unleash a fierce engagement with action.
— D-L Stewart (TED Talk: Scenes from a Black trans life)

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott (TED Talk: 12 truths I learned from life and writing)
Anne Lamott is a beloved American writer for all the right reasons, and I originally sought out her book to help me get through a creative rut and spiritual ennui when all of us first found ourselves in quarantine. But when you read this book, it’s more than just practical writing tips (of which there are plenty). She uses her writing exercises or lessons as a way to help us more deeply understand ourselves and the human condition in all its messiness. If you’re looking for sense-making and meaning during this deeply destabilizing time, this book is timeless.
— Elise Hu (TED Podcast: TED Talks Daily)

The Omni-Americans: Some Alternatives to the Folklore of White Supremacy by Albert Murray
Famed jazz musician and social critic Albert Murray takes on “the folklore of white supremacy” in a series of essays in this book by criticizing both reactionary and so-called “forward thinking” solutions to solving racism in the US. One of its most compelling points is that America is a mixed-race country — something that we all too often forget. Murray also argues for a vibrant “impromptu heroism culture,” which is a tendency within African-American culture observed especially in the arts that esteems the value of meritocracy and resiliency, two modes of being that are important for Americans at large.
— Chloe Valdary (TED Conversation: How love can repair social inequality)– Chloe Valdary (TED Conversation: How love can repair social inequality)

This American Life Sef! by Rudolf Okonkwo
This is an easy-to-read compilation of stories that sheds light into the lives of African immigrants in America. This book tells you what many of these immigrants deal with, but they will not share, for fear of being misunderstood. While chasing the American dream, there’s the pressure of family members back home endlessly asking for money even though the immigrants themselves might not even have savings. Many hope to move back home someday — but when they do, they realize their lives are now different from what they used to know. And of course, there is the struggle for American residency, including engaging in fake weddings. The book helped me to understand others better and to never take for granted the opportunities that I’ve had in a foreign country. (You can also watch the video review that I made for this book.)
— Adeola Fayehun (TED Talk: Africa is a sleeping giant — I’m trying to wake it up)

Voicing Change: Inspiration and Timeless Wisdom from the Rich Roll Podcast by Rich Roll
The author is a former lawyer who struggled with addiction, before turning his life around and becoming one of the best ultra-endurance athletes in the world. He now hosts a wide-ranging podcast that frequently highlights personal transformation. This book is a collection of stories, wisdom — and some original essays — from many of his most fascinating guests. It’s also stuffed with beautiful photography. Truly, you can just flip to any page and glean a bit of inspiration for the day.
— David Epstein (TED Talk: Why specializing early doesn’t always mean career success)

Intimations by Zadie Smith
I know, I know. You don’t want to read about quarantine or be reminded of the pain that is now. But Zadie Smith’s writing is calming in its sheer clarity — when reading it, you think, “Yes, that’s it exactly.” Of course, there is grief in the realizations that emerge from her sentences, but a little grieving is no bad thing.
— Mona Chalabi (TED Talk: 3 ways to stop a bad statistic)


Someone Who Will Love You in All Your Damaged Glory: Stories by Raphael Bob-Waksberg
This collection of deeply felt short stories comes from the creative mind behind Bojack Horseman, an animated dramedy that, to my mind, doesn’t get enough credit for its genius. 2020 is a year about introspection and stillness, as we fortify ourselves from travel and spontaneity and one another in order to keep our communities safe. What it allows for is stronger connection and meaning-making, and these stories, while infused with elements of fantasy, made me feel and feel more connected to the human condition. There’s a line at the end of one of the stories that I found particularly inspiring: “Life is terrifying and overwhelming and it can happen at any moment. And when you’re confronted with life you can either be cowardly or you can be brave, but either way you’re going to live. So you might as well be brave.”
— Elise Hu (TED Podcast: TED Talks Daily)

Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges
Here’s a book that would probably never land in a self-help section, and quite frankly, if you’re prone to existential angst, you might not want to read it before bedtime. But so many of these wondrous stories are really philosophical thought experiments. I haven’t read one yet that didn’t inspire my mind to go somewhere new and to search online to see what others had to say. Sometimes we need to be inspired to stop and think about things outside of our daily experience. For that, Borges is our guide.
— David Epstein (TED Talk: Why specializing early doesn’t always mean career success)

Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler
This sci-fi novel presents an Afrofuturist vision of the possibility of Black life. Octavia Butler illustrates what could be if we practiced an ethic that puts people before profit and community before the self.
— D-L Stewart (TED Talk: Scenes from a Black trans life)

Pafko at the Wall by Don DeLillo
As the sports world ground to halt because of the coronavirus, a dear friend — knowing how much I was pining for baseball’s return — sent me his copy of Don DeLillo’s novella Pafko at the Wall, a poetic telling of what it must have been like for a motley crew of city kids to bear witness to one of the greatest moments in baseball history: Bobby Thompson’s 1951 walk-off home run against the Brooklyn Dodgers, a.k.a. the “shot heard ‘round the world.” It’s sports storytelling at its best, because you don’t have to be a sports fan to enjoy it, and it inspired me to hold on by reminding me that the joyful sounds of sports and play would one day be back again.
— Hasan Kwame Jeffries (TED Talk: Why we must confront the painful parts of US history)

Patsy by Nicole Dennis-Benn
I thought about these characters for weeks after I read this novel — I wanted to call up Tru and find out how she was doing; I wanted to hear if Patsy got a better job. Nicole Dennis-Benn has written characters that are flawed and still lovable, cowardly and still brave, tragic and yet heroic. Just go read it.
— Mona Chalabi (TED Talk: 3 ways to stop a bad statistic)

The Wind Done Gone by Alice Randall
To create systems of inclusion, we really have to expand our point of view and, more importantly, understand the points of view of those around us. Sometimes we can look at or be in exactly the same things and places and have an entirely different experience. This book gives us an alternative account of the American novel Gone with the Wind — but from the vantage point of an enslaved woman. Talk about perspective! You’ll definitely “give a damn” about this one, Scarlett.
— Nita Mosby Tyler (TED Talk: Want a more just world? Be an unlikely ally)

In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddy Ratner
When I travel, I’ve made a habit of reading a book set in the place I’m visiting. I read this novel while in Cambodia; it’s loosely based on Vaddy Ratner’s own childhood under the brutal Khmer Rouge regime. Despite its bleak subject, the book is beautiful and even joyful — imbued with mythology, folklore and history. In the touching determination of a father to help his daughter see beauty amidst despair, I understood the true power of imagination.
— Nirupa Rao (TED Talk: An illustrated kingdom of real, fantastical plants)

Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
Though the work is seen as a work of entertaining fiction by many people today, it is — for me — a deeply philosophical work that invites the reader to consider the limitations and relativity of human knowledge. By the end of his journeys, Gulliver is a changed man who realizes that many of the things he thought he knew were, in fact, wrong and that there are other forms of knowledge and intelligence in the world. It is a work that is both thought-provoking and humbling at the same time.
— Farish Ahmad-Noor (TED Talk: Why is colonialism still romanticized?)

Japanese Tales by Royall Tyler
With over 200 medieval Japanese stories ( some less than a page), this is the book I reach for when I can’t sleep. It’s strange to call a book that helps me sleep inspiring, but in this insomniac year it really is. Each little story is a dreamscape and puts my mind in a different state. My grandmother is Japanese, but she never really told me too much in the way of medieval tales as a child. These are the stories I wish I’d heard.
— Saleem Reshamwala (TED Podcast: Far Flung with Saleem Reshamwala)

The Shack by Paul Young
This popular book was also made into a movie. It’s a novel about a family tragedy that caused the main character to spiral into a deep depression and question his innermost beliefs and faith in God. I must have read this book at least eight times — it kept me going through the toughest time of my life after my father died suddenly in 2009. He died in Nigeria while I was in the US, and it was very very tough for me to overcome that darkness. He is the reason I am doing all I’m doing today, because he believed in me even more than I believed in myself. I’m from a society where the male child is usually seen as the potential child, but my father never bought into that. There are six of us — five girls and one boy — and he raised us all the same. So the book really helped me to navigate through losing him so suddenly.
— Adeola Fayehun (TED Talk: Africa is a sleeping giant — I’m trying to wake it up)

Graphic Novels

My Favorite Thing is Monsters: Vol. I by Emil Ferris
This is a book that inspires me just by existing — a massive, award-winning graphic novel, with 416 pages (in this volume) of densely cross-hatched drawings, done primarily in Bic pen. A regular ballpoint! Every time I see it, I’m reminded that I don’t need perfect equipment to make things; I just need to let my brain get weird and dive in.
— Saleem Reshamwala (TED Podcast: Far Flung with Saleem Reshamwala)

Moms by Yeong-shin Ma
A graphic novel that includes a fight scene between two women in their 50s? Yes, please. The illustrations make you feel a little bit less dead inside, and the narrative of life’s consecutive disappointments has a strange levity.
— Mona Chalabi (TED Talk: 3 ways to stop a bad statistic)

Building Stories by Chris Ware
Chris Ware’s Building Stories, published in 2012, is so much more than a book. It is 14 individual experiences full of ennui, heartbreak, joy and elation, of humans living their lives stacked inside a box — 14 interlocking stories of the residents of a Chicago apartment building. The 14 pieces in Building Stories includes a game board, a newspaper, two hardcover books and various ephemera filled with lonely, frustrated people aching for connection. There’s the one-legged thirty-something woman, who is also the central character, living on the top floor, frustrated with her husband, gaining weight and wondering what happened to her dreams. There is a lonely old landlady living on the ground floor, a couple living on the middle floor with relationship problems and Branford, The Best Bee In The World, who is truly a thinking bee. The design is not limited to the story or to the presentation of the book — it is central to the narrative. Building Stories is remarkable and sets the stage for an entirely new way of storytelling.
— Debbie Millman (TED Talk: How symbols and brands shape our humanity and TED Podcast: Design Matters with Debbie Millman)


The Power Broker: Robert Moses and The Fall of New York by Robert Caro
This is, perhaps, the single greatest book about politics and power you could ever hope to read. It inspired Barack Obama in his 20s, and we saw where that led. It’s about a man you may not know anything about — Robert Moses — who did more to shape New York City and State and the broader American landscape than you could ever know. The book traces his rise from an aspirational youth into the complicated, problematic and power-hungry, ruthless individual he became (or maybe always was). Robert Caro is, perhaps, the greatest biographer of the last 100 years at least, and this is his only one-volume biography. So if you’ve ever wanted to check him out, there is no better book. It won the Pulitzer Prize! Need I say more?
— Lucas Husted (TED-Ed Lesson: Game theory challenge — can you predict human behavior?)

Meet Me in The Bathroom: Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City 2001 – 2011 by Lizzy Goodman
This book chronicles a magic moment in rock and roll — a point where the Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Interpol, Regina Spektor and so many others were all in the same place at the same time. It’s not quite 16th-century Florence, but for the genre it basically was. Again, the cross fertilization of ideas and receptivity to new thinking was the engine that made it all possible.
— Neal Katyal (TED Talk: How to win an argument at the Supreme Court, or anywhere)

The Structure of World History: From Modes of Production to Modes of Exchange by Kōjin Karatani
It was around the time of the Sunflower Movement that I started reading this book by Kōjin Karatani. The “Exchange Mode X” inspired me to channel the Sunflower Movement’s energy of outrage and hope into practical social innovations.
— Audrey Tang (TED Conversation: How digital innovations can fight pandemics and strengthen democracy)

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin (TED Talk: Lessons from past presidents)
Let’s see: A leader cobbles together a group of former rivals — with radically divergent opinions but extraordinary talent — to lead the country through a horrific national challenge. Sound similar to today’s world? Abraham Lincoln was a master at seeing the talent and common ground below the partisan patina of a group of people who had the skills to navigate the nation’s darkest challenges. Respect everyone, find the gem, and more importantly, help former antagonists see and use their strengths to break through. Team of Rivals is a master class in leadership and one that has guided my own leadership development over the years. It’s inspiration you can use!
— Tom Schuler (TED Talk: How we could make carbon-negative concrete)

This book is all about the leadership skills of Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. Among other things, it showed me how important it is to surround yourself with those who have demonstrated excellence in their chosen field — even if this includes those who are your political rivals vying for your seat.
— Chloe Valdary (TED Conversation: How love can repair social inequality)

A History of the World in 21 Women by Jenny Murray
Here’s a book that’s great for dipping into — I loved the diversity of the stories across thousand of years. Of course, 21 is an absurdly small number and I hope women today don’t have to be so exceptional to make history!
— Karen Scrivener (TED Talk: A concrete idea to reduce carbon emissions)

Science, Psychology and Self-Help

The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins
Published in 1976, this early work of Richard Dawkins is still very relevant today. When I read it in the 1980s, the book was crucial in my development as an evolutionary biologist because it showed me, in crisp and clear language, how to reason out evolutionary processes and helped me to “think like a gene” and predict the ways in which evolution does and doesn’t shape our living world.
— Menno Schilthuizen (TED Talk: How animals and plants are evolving in cities)

Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth (TED Talk: Grit — the power of passion and perseverence)
This book inspired me because of the actual grit Duckworth (herself displays along her journey; She leaves a lucrative job to follow her heart but even more impressively she doesn’t linger in comfort zones and she pushes herself to constantly evolve and grow, despite the challenges and growing pains that often accompany such journeys.
— Gil Winch (TED Video: How we can use the hiring process to bring out the best in people)

Ho’oponopono: The Hawaiian Forgiveness Ritual as the Key to Your Life’s Fulfillment by Ulrich E. Duprée
This tiny little book inspired me by teaching me a simple way to see the divine in others and in myself.
— Modupe Akinola (TED Podcast: TED Business)

Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know by Malcolm Gladwell (TED Talk: The unheard story of David and Goliath)
This book got me thinking a lot about remembering names as a way of honoring the beautiful souls of so many who have experienced untimely and unnecessary deaths in our society, because he names can blend in all too quickly. I also love the audio version of the book as Malcolm Gladwell uses existing audio from interviews and, as an added treat, infuses the book with Janelle Monae‘s song “hell you talmbout“.
— Modupe Akinola (TED Podcast: TED Business)

The New Sylva: A Discourse of Forest and Orchard Trees for the 21st Century by Gabriel Hemery and Sarah Simblet
As a botanical artist myself, I found Sarah Simblet’s illustrations to be the stuff of dreams. Her 200 ink drawings of trees native to the British landscape — like oak, elm, beech, willow and juniper — are depicted with simultaneous fragility and strength.
— Nirupa Rao (TED Talk: An illustrated kingdom of real, fantastical plants)

Seeing Science: How Photography Reveals the Universe by Marvin Heiferman 
This book is like walking through an exquisitely curated museum exhibit from the comfort of your own home. It showcases the images that both inspired and changed the course of science as we know it. Much of my TED talk was about the power of imaging the invisible, and this book illustrates how scientific images have shaped our knowledge and understanding of the world.
— Ariel Waldman (TED Talk: The invisible life hidden beneath Antarctica’s ice)

Illumination in the Flatwoods: A Season with the Wild Turkey by Joe Hutto
This nonfiction journal follows Hutto as he finds himself raising two clutches of wild turkey eggs in the flatwoods of Florida. As he raises them and works to safely return them to the total wild, they change his life. Not only does the reader get a front-row seat to just how amazing turkeys are but you also gain all the wonder and joy that Joe Hutto experiences as he brings the turkeys into the wild.
— Leah Garcés (TED Talk: A lesson in turning adversaries into allies)

A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold
Aldo Leopold was an author, naturalist and beloved professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and he’s largely credited as one of the founders of the modern environmental movement, especially in terms of the incalculable value of wilderness. I love Leopold’s simple and direct writing style, and in A Sand County Almanac, he essentially lays out the fundamentals for an ethics of environment.
— Chris Fisher (TED Talk: Let’s scan the whole planet with LIDAR)

The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself and Win by Maria Konnikova
On its face, this is a book about poker. But the psychology-PhD author really just used poker as a way to explore risk and luck and focus and how to learn a new skill. When she started the project, she didn’t know the number of cards in a deck. By the end, she was a poker pro. It’s an amazing journey, and a reminder of how invigorating and educational it can be to step outside of one’s comfort zone and try something completely new.
— David Epstein (TED Talk: Why specializing early doesn’t always mean career success)

Fishing Through the Apocalypse: An Angler’s Adventures in the 21st Century by Matthew L. Miller
As somebody who also fishes for obscure tiny fish in sewers, it is nice to know that I am not the only crazy one. Matthew Miller details his quest to catch as many species as possible, which sometimes takes him to scenic mountain streams but also to toxic drainage ditches under highway overpasses. While it is glib to think of fishing in such industrial, human-influenced areas, it also gives hope — showing that life persists even under the harshest conditions. Miller suggests how we can turn it all around so that future generations can enjoy pristine, sustainable fisheries just as the generations before us.
— Noah Bressman (TED-Ed Lesson: The fish that walk on land)

Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction by Annalee Newitz
The thing I love most about this book is how Annalee Newitz started writing this book with a fairly gloomy outlook but after much fascinating research, she came out the other side feeling hopeful for humanity. Getting inspired by how we can survive the worst feels like an appropriate and cathartic read for 2020.
— Ariel Waldman (TED Talk: The invisible life hidden beneath Antarctica’s ice)

Reflections From the North Country by Sigurd F. Olson
I grew up on the shores of gichi-gami (a.ka. Lake Superior) and the waters of the Quetico-Superior country of northern Minnesota and Ontario — most often with a canoe paddle in my hands. I was gifted a wilderness education in those places that has directly influenced the direction and thinking behind my Earth Archive project. This land of incredible beauty and harsh contrasts is currently embroiled in a bitter fight between the interests of big mining over the intrinsic value of wilderness.  As a consequence this year, I found myself returning to old favorites and writers who most influenced me. One of them was Sigurd Olson, a prolific author, environmental activist and long-time North Country paddler who helped draft the Wilderness act of 1964 and is largely credited with the creation of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA) of Northern Minnesota (a place I dearly love). I could have put any of Olson’s works here but Reflections makes the case for the preservation of wilderness, and this is the work that I found myself returning to again and again this year.
— Chris Fisher (TED Talk: Let’s scan the whole planet with LIDAR)

Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-History of the Human Body by Neil Shubin
Neil Shubin offers an easy-to-understand explanation of how life evolved from single-cell organisms into people. After reading this book, people will understand that they are literally fish, albeit super-smart fish that evolved to live out of the water — but fish nonetheless.
— Noah Bressman (TED-Ed Lesson: The fish that walk on land)

“Happiness Won’t Save You” by Jennifer Senior (TED Talk: For parents, happiness is a very high bar)
When I arrived at Michigan to start my doctorate in psychology in 2003, I was stunned to learn that happiness expert Philip Brickman — who did the famous study which compared the happiness of lottery winners and accident victims — had died by suicide on campus. Ever since, I’ve wondered why, and this poignant New York Times article begins to unravel the mystery. It’s filled with empathy, evidence and wisdom on the human condition.
— Adam Grant (TED Talk: Are you a giver or a taker? and TED Podcast: Work Life with Adam Grant)

The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard College Observatory Took The Measure of the Stars by Dava Sobel
The Harvard College Observatory is an historical research institute founded in 1839 on a little hilltop in Cambridge, Massachusetts. To me, it is a splendid place which exudes history and science all over and I am lucky enough to call it my workplace. The Glass Universe tells the inspiring and breathtaking story of a group of very remarkable women who changed forever our understanding of the stars in the firmament. The so-called “calculators” included Annie Jump Cannon, Henrietta Swan Leavitt and Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, among others, who were living in a world of science dominated by men. They forever changed the history of astronomy and inspired generations of scientists for centuries to come.
— Fabio Pacucci (TED-Ed Lesson: Could we harness the power of a black hole?)

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