We humans

Books worth reading, as recommended by Bill Gates, Susan Cain and more…

Dec 16, 2014 /

Find repose by exciting the mind. Some of the world’s leading thinkers offer the books that inspired them and their work. Skim the list for your favorite speakers, or get nerdy on a topic you’ve always wanted to know more about. Below find 52 books, recommended by TED speakers.


Creative Confidence, by Tom Kelley and David Kelley
Crown Business, 2013
Recommended by: Tim Brown (TED Talk: Designers — think big!)
“‘Creative confidence’ is the creative mindset that goes along with design thinking’s creative skill set.”
See more of Tim Brown’s favorite books.

Creating Minds, by Howard Gardner
Basic Books, 2011
Recommended by: Roselinde Torres (TED Talk: What it takes to be a great leader)
“Gardner’s book was first published more than twenty years ago, but its insights into the creative process — told through the stories of seven remarkable individuals from different fields — remain just as relevant today. While they shared some traits, they all followed different paths to success.”
See more of Roselinde Torres’ favorite books.

A Room of One’s Own, by Virginia Woolf
Martino Fine Books, 2012
Recommended by: Liza Donnelly (TED Talk: Drawing on humor for change)
“One of the most important books about women’s rights, and one that informed my thinking on creativity, is this one by Virginia Woolf.”
See more of Liza Donnelly’s favorite books.

The Future of Ideas, by Lawrence Lessig
Vintage, 2002
Recommended by: Rob Reid (TED Talk: The $8 billion iPod)
“Over the past fifteen years, a movement has emerged to preserve what’s become known as the ‘Creative Commons’ – that realm of imagery, music, writing and more that exists in the public domain for all of society to freely extend, sample from and build upon. Lessig is the intellectual father and the prime mover of this movement. He has written a number of books about the Creative Commons and the dangers posed by overreaching copyright laws. The Future of Ideas is a particularly complete and focused expression of this.”
See more of Rob Reid’s favorite books.

The Spark, by Kristine Barnett
Random House, 2013
Recommended by: Temple Grandin (TED Talk: The world needs all kinds of minds)
“Read this book to learn how a mother developed her autistic son’s strengths.”
See more of Temple Grandin’s favorite books.

Hackers and Painters, by Paul Graham
O’Reilly Media, 2010
Recommended by: Keren Elazari (TED Talk: Hackers: the Internet’s immune system)
“Paul Graham, the founder of Y Combinator, wrote this book of essays about the creative aspects of hacker culture. The essay that really inspired me was the one about the positive meaning of the word ‘hacker.’
See more of Keren Elazari’s favorite books.


The Laws of Simplicity, by John Maeda
The MIT Press, 2006
Recommended by: Margaret Gould Stewart (TED Talk: How giant websites design for you (and a billion others, too))
“This slim but insightful volume delves deeply into the concept of simplicity, and applies that principle in a variety of contexts, including design, technology and more generally our day-to-day lives.”
See more of Margaret Gould Stewart’s favorite books.

Design for the Real World, by Victor Papanek
Chicago Review Press, 2005
Recommended by: Sebastian Deterding (TED Talk: What your designs say about you)
“‘There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a few of them.’ Thus starts this classic on the ethics of industrial design, originally published in 1971.”
See more of Sebastian Deterding’s favorite books.

A Theory of Fun for Game Design, by Raph Koster
O’Reilly Media, 2014
Recommended by: Tom Chatfield (TED Talk: 7 ways games reward the brain)
“Essential reading for anyone who cares about games.”
See more of Tom Chatfield’s favorite books.


Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor E. Frankl
Beacon Press, 2006
Recommended by: Simon Sinek (TED Talk: Why good leaders make you feel safe)
“This is essential reading for anyone interested in the topic of purpose. Because Frankl’s personal experience was so extreme, the lessons are that much more stark. And, most importantly, his lessons are universally applicable to all our lives.”
See more of Simon Sinek’s favorite books.

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2008
Recommended by: Susan Cain (TED Talk: The power of introverts)
“This book illuminates the kind of life we should all be living. Csikszentmihalyi argues that one of the highest states of being is the state of flow — when you’re totally engaged in an activity, riding the narrow channel between boredom and anxiety. I talk about this book a lot, and try to live by it even more.”
See more of Susan Cain’s favorite books.

The Happiness Hypothesis, by Jonathan Haidt
Basic Books, 2006
Recommended by: Stefan Sagmeister (TED Talk: The power of time off)
“If you are interested in the subject of happiness, this is the best book I’ve come across. Haidt manages to write in a way that’s encompassing yet precise, scientific yet personal. A wonderful survey of many strategies that might improve your well-being.”
See more of Stefan Sagmeister’s favorite books.

Want Not, by Jonathan Miles
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013
Recommended by: Elizabeth Gilbert (TED Talk: Success, failure and the drive to keep creating)
“Every generation or so, an American novel appears that holds up a mirror to our lives and shows us exactly who we are right at this very moment. Want Not is that book right now — a searing but compassionate look at modern Americans and their stuff. A book about garbage and consumption and accumulation and disposal, but most of all about humanity in all its stubborn, flawed glory.”
See more of Elizabeth Gilbert’s favorite books.

Your Money or Your Life, by Vicki Robin et al.
Penguin Books, 2008
Recommended by: Graham Hill (TED Talk: Less stuff, more happiness)
“This simple little book succinctly describes the American trap of acquisitiveness and consequential debt. Most importantly, it provides a way out.”
See more of Graham Hill’s favorite books.

Waking Up, Alive, by Richard A. Heckler
Ballantine Books, 1996
Recommended by: JD Schramm (TED Talk: Break the silence for suicide attempt survivors)
“I’m thrilled that Richard Heckler’s book has been updated and re-released. It’s the best place to start if you want to learn more about life after a suicide attempt.”
See more of JD Schramm’s favorite books.

The Do-It-Yourself Guide to Fighting the Big Motherfuckin’ Sad, by Adam Gnade
Pioneers Press, 2013
Recommended by: Will Potter (TED Talk: The shocking move to criminalize nonviolent protest)
“I write about pretty depressing stuff, to put it mildly, and on some days that darkness feels overwhelming. This slim volume by Adam Gnade hit home for me and countless others because it’s written with a raw mix of compassion, tough love and an outlaw spirit. It’s a must for anyone trying to fight the good fight.”
See more of Will Potter’s favorite books.


The Better Angels of Our Nature, by Steven Pinker
Penguin Books, 2012
Recommended by: Yasheng Huang (TED Talk: Does democracy stifle economic growth?)
“I always enjoy reading Steven Pinker’s books, but this one has some startling statistics on the death tolls of totalitarian regimes vis-à-vis the death tolls of democratic regimes. One of the major theses of this book is that the rise of the rights revolution and democratic forms of government is one of the main causes behind the historic reduction of violence.”
See more of Yasheng Huang’s favorite books.

Big History: From the Big Bang to the Present, by Cynthia Stokes Brown
The New Press, 2008
Recommended by: David Christian (TED Talk: The history of our world in 18 minutes)
“The first-ever college textbook on big history, this title focuses on the idea of increasing complexity and is structured accordingly. Most of the second half explores human history; the final chapter looks to the future.”
See more of David Christian’s favorite books.

The Man Who Fed the World, by Leon Hesser
Durban House Press, 2010
Recommended by: Bill Gates (TED Talk: Bill and Melinda Gates: Why giving away our wealth has been the most satisfying thing we’ve done)
“The subject of this book, Norm Borlaug, is one of my heroes — and Leon Hesser’s biography is a fascinating account of Borlaug’s life and accomplishments. This is a story of genius, self-sacrifice and determination. Borlaug was a remarkable scientist and humanitarian whose work in agriculture is rightfully credited with saving the lives of over a billion people.”
See more of Bill Gates’ favorite books.

Pig Earth, by John Berger
Vintage, 1992
Recommended by: Robert Neuwirth (TED Talk: The power of the informal economy)
“Berger finds poetry in the humdrum and pragmatism in big dreams. This trilogy movingly chronicles the social dislocations and new social conglomerations of rural-to-urban migration.”
See more of Robert Neuwirth’s favorite books.

Personal History, by Katharine Graham
Vintage, 1998
Recommended by: Lisa Bu (TED Talk: How books can open your mind)
“Read this along with The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life, by Alice Schroeder. This is the autobiography of Katharine Graham, former publisher of The Washington Post. She was an inspiration for me when I was struggling with insecurities. She and Warren Buffett are great friends and business partners. I really like Buffett’s approach to life, business and wealth: ‘Life is like a snowball — all you need is wet snow and a really long hill.'”
See more of Lisa Bu’s favorite books.

China: A New History, by John King Fairbank and Merle Goldman
Belknap Press, 2006
Recommended by: Martin Jacques (TED Talk: Understanding the rise of China)
“A good introduction to China.”
See more of Martin Jacques’s favorite books.


On the Shoulders of Giants, by Robert K. Merton
University of Chicago Press, 1993
Recommended by: James Geary (TED Talk: Metaphorically speaking)
“Published in 1965, On the Shoulders of Giants is a profound, provocative peregrination along the trail of the aphorism, ‘If I have seen farther it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.’ Merton demonstrates — through a series of astonishingly erudite, scholarly and witty digressions — that this saying, commonly attributed to Isaac Newton, was actually first coined by Bernard of Chartres, in the 12th century. If you like aphorisms, and love learning about wildly different domains and ideas, this book is a masterpiece. It is also, unfortunately, out of print and hard to find.”
See more of James Geary’s favorite books.

The Professor and the Madman, by Simon Winchester
Harper Perennial, 1999
Recommended by: Erin McKean (TED Talk: The joy of lexicography)
“About the Oxford English Dictionary. A page-turner! (Rest assured, most lexicographers never shoot anyone.)”
See more of Erin McKean’s favorite books


The Essential Epicurus, by Epicurus
Prometheus Books, 1993
Recommended by: Alain de Botton (TED Talk: A kinder, gentler philosophy of success)
“Epicurus was the first philosopher to say that pleasure was the most important thing in life. People took him to mean sensual pleasure and the word ‘epicurean’ has been linked to gluttony ever since. But read the real Epicurus and you’ll see that his idea of pleasure was quite immaterial; in fact, it was all about having a group of good friends and reading books together outdoors.”
See more of Alain de Botton’s favorite books.

Theodicy, by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz
Flammarion, 1999
Recommended by: Tali Sharot (TED Talk: The optimism bias)
“Read some of the first work on optimism.”
See more of Tali Sharot’s favorite books.

Math and stats

The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail — but Some Don’t, by Nate Silver
The Penguin Press HC, 2012
Recommended by: Nic Marks (TED Talk: The Happy Planet Index)
“If you are a statistician, or use statistics in your work, then this is an outstanding book you should read.”
See more of Nic Marks’ favorite books.

Facts Are Sacred, by Simon Rogers
Faber & Faber, 2013
Recommended by: Tim Berners-Lee (TED Talk: The next web)
“A data-related book by Simon Rogers, the editor of guardian.co.uk/data.”
See more of Tim Berners-Lee’s favorite books.

A History of Mathematical Notations, by Florian Cajori
Dover Publications, 2012
Recommended by: Terry Moore (TED Talk: Why is ‘x’ the unknown?)
“A good book for people who want to know more about how mathematical symbols like ‘x’ evolved.”
See more of Terry Moore’s favorite books.


The Checklist Manifesto, by Atul Gawande
Picador, 2011
Recommended by: Brian Goldman (TED Talk: Doctors make mistakes. Can we talk about that?)
The Checklist Manifesto is Gawande’s bestselling book about medical errors that come from not knowing enough and errors that come from not doing the right thing. The book is essential reading for people who want to understand why health care is not as safe as it could be and how to change that.”
See more of Brian Goldman’s favorite books.

Testing Treatments, by Imogen Evans et al.
Pinter & Martin, 2011
Recommended by: Ben Goldacre (TED Talk: What doctors don’t know about the drugs they prescribe)
“This is an excellent book on evidence-based medicine, and the problems in it. It is written by eminent scientists and patients working together, and can be downloaded free online (disclosure: I wrote the foreword).”
See more of Ben Goldacre’s favorite books.

Coping with Trauma-Related Dissociation, by Suzette Boon et al.
W. W. Norton, 2011
Recommended by: Eleanor Longden (TED Talk: The voices in my head)
“An accessible, reassuring book that offers practical guidance for trauma survivors and their supporters in working towards healing and recovery.”
See more of Eleanor Longden’s favorite books.

Mind and brain

Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013
Recommended by: Alex Laskey (TED Talk: How behavioral science can lower your energy bill)
“Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, who gave the TED Talk ‘The riddle of experience vs. memory,’ explores how behavioral economics and cognitive biases influence our everyday decision making.”
See more of Alex Laskey’s favorite books.

The Mind’s Eye, by Oliver Sacks
Vintage, 2011
Recommended by: Simon Lewis (TED Talk: Don’t take consciousness for granted)
“Inspirational and finely written stories of people who find ways to navigate the world through landscapes that have been fractured in ways that are often hard to imagine.”
See more of Simon Lewis’s favorite books.

The Honest Truth about Dishonesty, by Dan Ariely
Harper Perennial, 2013
Recommended by: Pamela Meyer (TED Talk: How to spot a liar)
“A fun, research-based look at cheating and dishonesty by this well-known behavioral economist. The book touches on everything from why creative people are better liars to why wearing knockoff fashion accessories will make you more dishonest.”
See more of Pamela Meyer’s favorite books.

Consciousness: An Introduction, by Susan Blackmore
Routledge, 2013
Recommended by: David Chalmers (TED Talk: How do you explain consciousness?)
“Susan Blackmore’s excellent introduction to all sorts of scientific and philosophical issues about consciousness.”
See more of David Chalmers’ favorite books.

Ancestors and Relatives, by Eviatar Zerubavel
Oxford University Press, 2012
Recommended by: AJ Jacobs (TED Talk: The world’s largest family reunion … we’re all invited!)
“The very first question in this book sets the thought-provoking tone: ‘Why do we consider Barack Obama a black man with a white mother rather than a white man with a black father?’ Rutgers anthropologist Eviatar Zerubavel shows us that our ideas about ancestry are shaped by cognitive biases that we often don’t acknowledge.”
See more of AJ Jacobs’ favorite books.

Origins of Neuroscience, by Stanley Finger
Oxford University Press, 2001
Recommended by: Nancy Kanwisher (TED Talk: A neural portrait of the human mind)
“The idea that the mind and brain are composed of distinct components, each carrying out a different function, goes back at least two centuries to neurologists like Franz Josef Gall and Paul Broca. For a delightful history of the colorful characters of this early era, read this book.”
See more of Nancy Kanwisher’s favorite books.

Brainwashing, by Kathleen Taylor
Oxford University Press, 2006
Recommended by: Diane Benscoter (TED Talk: How cults rewire the brain)
“Neuroscientist Kathleen Taylor brings a unique perspective to the subject of what happens to your brain when you join a cult.”
See more of Diane Benscoter’s favorite books.

Politics and current events

The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander
The New Press, 2012
Recommended by: Shaka Senghor (TED Talk: Why your worst deeds don’t define you)
“Alexander tackles the hard-hitting issues of race, power and the historical context of the prison system. Her acute analysis of race and sentencing disparities cuts to the heart of the prison boom.”
See more of Shaka Senghor’s favorite books.

Mighty Be our Powers, by Leymah Gbowee
Beast Books, 2013
Recommended by: Melinda Gates (TED Talk: Bill and Melinda Gates: Why giving away our wealth has been the most satisfying thing we’ve done)
“In 2011, Leymah Gbowee became a global figure when she won a Nobel Prize for launching a grassroots women’s movement that led to peace in Liberia. This is an amazing tale of a group of women coming together to change the course of a country’s history — and it’s also the inspiring story of how Gbowee overcame her own doubts and fears and found the courage to lead them.”
See more of Melinda Gates’ favorite books.

From Dictatorship to Democracy, by Gene Sharp
Serpent’s Tail, 2012
Recommended by: Scilla Elworthy (TED Talk: Fighting with non-violence)
“This book is based on Sharp’s study, conducted over a period of 40 years, on nonviolent methods of demonstration. Although never actively promoted, this astonishing book traveled as a photocopied pamphlet from Burma to Indonesia, Serbia and most recently Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and China.”
See more of Scilla Elworthy’s favorite books.

Ecological Intelligence, by Daniel Goleman
Broadway Books, 2009
Recommended by: Leyla Acaroglu (TED Talk: Paper beats plastic? How to rethink environmental folklore)
“This book provides an excellent, easy-to-understand overview of ‘life-cycle assessment,’ or how everything that we do affects the natural environment.”
See more of Leyla Acaroglu’s favorite books.

One More River to Cross, by Keith Boykin
Anchor Books, 1998
Recommended by: Yoruba Richen (TED Talk: What the gay rights movement learned from the civil rights movement)
“Against a backdrop of civil rights and the black experience in America, Boykin interviews Baptist ministers, gay political leaders, and other black gays and lesbians on issues of faith, family, discrimination and visibility to determine what differences — real and imagined — separate the two communities.”
See more of Yoruba Richen’s favorite books.

Science and nature

Parasite Rex, by Carl Zimmer
Atria Paperback, 2014
Recommended by: Ed Yong (TED Talk: Suicidal crickets, zombie roaches and other parasite tales)
“The best book on the disturbing, fascinating, grisly habits of parasites, including those that manipulate their hosts.”
See more of Ed Yong’s favorite books.

Why We Run, by Bernd Heinrich
Harper Perennial, 2002
Recommended by: David Epstein (TED Talk: Are athletes really getting faster, better, stronger?)
“Written by a biologist and ultramarathoner, this book is a fascinating look at how endurance has shaped physiology throughout the animal kingdom. (Endurance flying, endurance running, even frogs and their endurance croaking!) Heinrich gives poetic treatment to the role of ultraendurance in human evolution, and applies some of what he learns while studying animals to his own training. It works out pretty well, as he sets an American record at the North American 100-kilometer championships.”
See more of David Epstein’s favorite books.

My Family and Other Animals, by Gerald Durrell
Penguin, 2004
Recommended by: Enric Sala (TED Talk: Glimpses of a pristine ocean)
“An ode to joy and innocence, the book that inspired me as a kid to become a naturalist, and that still warms my heart and makes me laugh.”
See more of Enric Sala’s favorite books.

Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation, by Olivia Judson
Holt Paperbacks, 2003
Recommended by: Carin Bondar (TED Talk: The birds and the bees are just the beginning)
“Olivia Judson’s book was among the first that motivated me to become a science communicator. Her comical approach to all kinds of sexual ‘conundrums’ has always been a favorite of mine.”
See more of Carin Bondar’s favorite books.


Give and Take, by Adam Grant
Penguin Books, 2014
Recommended by: Shawn Achor (TED Talk: The happy secret to better work)
“This Wharton professor shows how giving at work can lead to greater happiness and success.”
See more of Shawn Achor’s favorite books.

Thrive, by Arianna Huffington
Harmony Books, 2014
Recommended by: Andy Puddicombe (TED Talk: All it takes is 10 mindful minutes)
“This book covers mindfulness in quite some detail, but also looks at the wider impact of our addiction to technology, overly active minds and increasingly busy lives. It offers some excellent commentary on mindfulness, along with some very sound advice.”
See more of Andy Puddicombe’s favorite books.

The Talent Code, by Daniel Coyle
Arrow Books, 2010
Recommended by: Dan Pink (TED Talk: The puzzle of motivation)
“A savvy and snappy compilation of some of the best research on talent. I’ve given away more than a dozen copies of this one — including to my own kids.”
See more of Dan Pink’s favorite books.

Giving Voice to Values, by Mary Gentile
Yale University Press, 2012
Recommended by: Margaret Heffernan (TED Talk: Dare to disagree)
“A tremendous book about how to speak up.”
See more of Margaret Heffernan’s favorite books.