We humans

70 books to make you feel hopeful: A special reading list

Dec 16, 2016

Need a dose of literary oomph and inspiration? Here’s a selection of uplifting reads — all suggested by TED speakers — for your enjoyment.

When you crave entertainment but don’t want to dumb down

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
This touching novel reminds us that everyone has a story; that we should aim to understand, not to judge; and that there’s great beauty in the depths and nuances in our lives. It’s a quick, fun read, but it will gives you plenty of big ideas to think about and bring hope to all but the coldest of hearts.
— Isaac Lidsky 

Mooncop by Tom Gauld
Gauld’s book about a police officer looking for hope on a moon colony was a favorite for me this year. Too often, graphic novelists tend not to leave much for the imagination. Mooncop, on the other hand, contains long, beautiful and thought-provoking silences. It is a fast read, and I smiled the entire time.
— Safwat Saleem 

B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal by J. C. Hallman
“What is the purpose of literature?” is the question at the centre of this literary romp through books, love and contemporary American culture. Part love letter to Nicholson Baker and part secret wink at Henry James, this book manages to make literary criticism feel…sexy. This is my recommendation for anyone who’d like to feel hopeful about the future of art and critical thought.
— Siyanda Mohutsiwa 

Reckless: My Life as a Pretender by Chrissie Hynde
I saw her play live recently in Austin, and I was totally in awe. She is now 65, but her voice has not changed a bit. I couldn’t stop staring at her — her demeanor, her contagious smile, how she moved on stage. I officially became a fangirl at that moment. I had heard about this book but I hadn’t felt the urge to pick it up until her performance. Then I wanted to know everything about her. One of my favorite lines in the book is at the beginning when she writes, “I regret half of this story and the other half is the sound you heard” — it gave me goosebumps.
— Magda Sayeg (TED Talk: How yarn bombing grew into a worldwide movement)

Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan
I know this novel is a few years old, but it’s gotten media attention recently — it’s being made into a movie with the first-ever all-Asian cast. There is something very refreshing about that, so if you didn’t pick it up before, I suggest reading it now. I love books like this where the characters feel so unrelatable and disconnected, but then you see that they suffer through life’s obstacles just like everyone else.
— Magda Sayeg

When you want to pause and take stock of your life

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
One of my favorite books, this novel speaks to anyone who is searching for their life’s purpose and trying to establish a vision for it. A quick and easy read, it is filled with beautiful lessons that we can all learn from.
— Nadia Lopez (TED Talk: Why open a school to close a prison?)

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Want to understand happiness? In this book, Csikszentmihalyi describes a state of consciousness — which he calls “flow” — in which people typically experience deep enjoyment, creativity and a total involvement. He also demonstrate the ways that this positive state can be controlled and not just left to chance. By ordering the information that enters our consciousness, we can discover true happiness and greatly improve the quality of our lives.
— Lisa Dyson (TED Talk: A forgotten space age technology could change how we grow food)

Independent People by Halldor Laxness
Laxness is Iceland’s only Nobel-winning author, and this is my all-time favorite novel. Its main character, Bjartur, sacrifices everything dear to him in order to become an independent and self-sufficient farmer. Then he discovers that only once he has lost everything does he find what he truly values.
— Halla Tómasdóttir (TED Talk: It’s time for women to run for office)

Unbowed by Wangari Maathai
I find women’s autobiographies to be quite empowering, especially when I’m feeling down or in doubt about my life. This memoir by a Kenyan environmental and political activist is a story of resilience and determination. Born in rural Kenya, Maathai ended up being the first woman from her country to receive a PhD, as well as head a university department. Through a foundation she established, she helped restore indigenous forests while also assisting rural women by paying them to plant trees in their villages. Without a doubt, her courageous story shows how we can make the best out of our circumstances, despite the challenges.
— Laura Boushnak

The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak
In this lyrical novel, Turkish author Shafak unfolds two parallel stories. One is contemporary, and the other is set in the 13th century, when the poet Rumi encountered his spiritual mentor, the whirling dervish known as Shams of Tabriz. Together, the two narratives illuminate love, Rumi’s timeless theme. The book eloquently shows the struggle between following your mind and following your heart, and it ends up giving you the confidence to do the latter, something we too often resist doing in our modern world.
— Leila Hoteit

What I Know for Sure by Oprah Winfrey
This delightful, insightful collection of Winfrey’s essays (from her magazine) cover a wide range of topics, including joy, resilience, gratitude, awe, clarity and power. By sharing intimate moments from her life, lessons learned and advice on living, Oprah challenges readers to be the best version of themselves.
— Lisa Dyson 

When you want to explore the world but can’t leave your house

The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks and Giants of the Ocean by Susan Casey
Casey follows surfers and scientists to look at some of the largest waves ever witnessed on our seas. In her firsthand account, she offers adventure laced with science, exploring issues like global warming and the health of our oceans. What’s more, she writes her story in beautiful prose that enlightens as much as it entertains.
— Jill Heinerth 

Cleverlands: The Secrets Behind the Success of the World’s Education Superpowers by Lucy Crehan
Secondary-school teacher and education consultant Crehan, frustrated with ever-changing government policies claiming to be based on lessons from so-called top-performing education systems, decides to dig deeper. She sets off on a personal educational journey through Finland, Japan, Singapore, China and Canada, teaching in their schools, immersing herself in their very different cultures and discovering the surprising truths about education that don’t appear in the charts and graphs. A great read for anyone passionate about shaping the next generation.
— Leila Hoteit (TED Talk: 3 lessons on success from an Arab businesswoman)

Dancing in Cambodia and Other Essays by Amitav Ghosh
This collection includes three travel essays from different parts of Asia, each featuring a well-researched and broad perspective on the recent history of that particular area (Cambodia, Burma, and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands) interwoven with the very real and grounded stories of a few people the author came to know in his journeys. While the book speaks about civil war, disasters and suffocating oppression, what stands out in each essay is the indomitable nature of the human spirit. To me, the book is powerful because it brings to life the extreme patience and resilience that lies within each one of us, as well as the power and strength that comes when we have complete conviction in our beliefs and aspirations.
— Seema Bansal (TED Talk: How to fix a broken education system without any more money)

Rolling Blackouts: Dispatches from Turkey, Syria and Iraq by Sarah Glidden
This graphic novel gave me exactly what I needed this year: hope about the state and future of journalism. Glidden’s book subtly describes what it means to be a journalist as she tells the story of a trip she and her reporter friends took to Turkey, Syria and Iraq to research potential stories. As I watched the story unfold, I marveled at Sarah’s ability to synthesize a complex narrative with simple and elegant drawings.
— Safwat Saleem 

A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews
The novel’s narrator, 16-year-old Nomi Nickel, is smart, defiant and totally out of place in her tiny Canadian Mennonite community. Although she isn’t particularly interested in belonging, the almost wordless intimacy she shares every day with her father keeps her from leaving town. Towes’ language immediately draws you in, but the best part about this book is it demands readers to rethink what it means to really love someone — and imagine all the forms that kindness might take.
— Mandy Len Catron 

When you’re looking for a completely different perspective on life

Earth in Human Hands: Shaping Our Planet’s Future by David Grinspoon
Who knew that taking an interplanetary, billion-year view on our environmental troubles could inspire such optimism? Grinspoon is a planetary scientist, and he thinks big — very big. He’s also hopeful that as we mature as a species, we will become ever better at preserving all species, controlling climate change and thinking about ourselves as part of one vast interconnected biosphere.
— Emma Marris 

For the Benefit of Those Who See: Dispatches from the World of the Blind by Rosemary Mahoney
This author explores her deep fear of sightlessness by studying with and teaching the blind in Nepal and India. Her students tell her that, in fact, they wouldn’t want to be any other way. This book is an extraordinary account of how what scares us most may simply be another way of being in the world.
— Monica Byrne (TED Talk: A sci-fi vision of love from a 318-year-old hologram)

The Inland Whale: Nine Stories Retold from California Indian Legend by Theodora Kroeber
Myths and legends have a special kind of power to connect us to the universality of human experience while at the same time attesting to the uniqueness of Earth’s many cultures. Kroeber’s retellings of these stories are beautiful, and I often think of the dignity of Nenem, the proud lover and mother, in the title story. Reading these tales makes me feel the world is much bigger and more mysterious than we think.
— Emma Marris 

A Burglar’s Guide to the City by Geoff Manaugh
This nonfiction book imparts — if not quite hope — certainly an expanded sense of possibility. Its tales of heists and getaways, of the use and misuse of city infrastructure, are both good fun and a significant departure from the typical way we think about cities. The book is also full of mischievous advice, which could be useful in the parallel universe where you make a living robbing banks. One sample gem: Should you find yourself in a car being chased by a helicopter, drive toward the airport because your airborne pursuers won’t be able to follow you there.
— Alison Killing (TED Talk: There’s a better way to die and architecture can help)

Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs by Sally Mann
This memoir dignifies controversial art in a way that makes me very hopeful, especially in these weird political times. Mann is unfairly gifted — not just as a photographer but as a memoirist of such poetry, fresh thinking and moral courage.
— Courtney Martin 

Who Cooked the Last Supper? The Women’s History of the World by Rosalind Miles
This book is a romp through a huge swath of history, diving into the vast gaps left in the narrative where women’s stories ought to be. It is a really jolly, easy read but it should also make any woman furious at how her gender has been overlooked, underrepresented and, often, not recorded at all.
— Sandi Toksvig (TED Talk: A political party for women’s equality)

The Blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap Between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World by Jacqueline Novogratz
Novogratz, founder of the nonprofit venture capital fund Acumen, donated a beloved blue sweater to Goodwill, only to see it again, years later, worn by a young boy she met in Rwanda. This story symbolizes how interconnected we’ve all become, a theme that the author explores in this deeply inspiring memoir, which traces her transition from NYC’s Wall Street to Kigali, Abidjan, New Delhi and beyond.
— Andrew Youn (TED Talk: 3 reasons why we can win the fight against poverty)

Jugaad Innovation: Think Frugal, Be Flexible, Generate Breakthrough Growth by Jaideep Prabhu, Navi Radjou and Simone Ahuja
This book goes a lot beyond other business books and speaks not only about the need to be agile but also the need to be frugal in developing countries in order to fit the consumer and context of these nations. I find this book extremely hopeful as it shows how simple, cost-effective solutions can change the world for the better.
— Mileha Soneji 

The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change by Roger Thurow
This is a book that’s incredibly close to my heart. Thurow, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, chronicles a year in the lives of four farming families in East Africa. They all joined a program run by the nonprofit One Acre Fund and embarked on the path from poverty towards prosperity. It was not an easy journey, and the writer captures both the despairs and triumphs that occur along the way. The book ends up showcasing the indelibility of human resolve — and how access to even the most basic resources can profoundly impact people’s lives.
— Andrew Youn 

When you want to take a trip back — or forth — in time

The Locust and the Bird: My Mother’s Story by Hanan al-Shaykh
I love this fictionalized account that al-Shaykh created about her mother’s life — it encouraged me to put my fear aside and be more outspoken about issues concerning women’s freedom of choice. Written by a Lebanese author, this is a sensitive and honest story about her mother’s passionate life that was full of desires, which were viewed by some as taboos.
— Laura Boushnak (TED Talk: The deadly legacy of cluster bombs)

The Dinner Party: Restoring Women to History by Judy Chicago
The book delves into the history of inspiring women who have paved the way for so many of us. It is also a companion to the stunning exhibition that artist Chicago created for the Brooklyn Museum in the 1970s, where it remains to this day.
— Alyson McGregor (TED Talk: Why medicine often has dangerous side effects for women)

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
This is an impressive novel to get lost in. It gives a historical perspective on slavery and the slave trade and explores how our identities are shaped by personal and political circumstances. Although this book must have required painstaking research, Gyasi seamlessly transitions from history to the present, managing to capture the natural authenticity of each character.
— Sayu Bhojwani (TED Talk: How immigrant voices make democracy stronger)

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
This novel is the sequel to the classic To Kill a Mockingbird, and it’s set nearly two decades later, in the 1950s. While the first book was supremely powerful, it was also quite straightforward in the ways that it defined right and wrong, good and bad. What I really like about Watchman is that it shows these categories are far more complex and there perhaps is no white and black; some of it depends on context, circumstance, age and other factors. This book also tackles two big questions: Can childhood heroes and idols remain those forever? And what happens when one grows up and develops one’s own views?
— Seema Bansal 

Always Coming Home by Ursula K. Le Guin
Science fiction writers imagine the future and therefore, we hope, can shape the future. Here, writer Le Guin imagines a future Earth that looks radically different from our present Earth — a place of peace, prosperity and sustainability.
— Monica Byrne 

The Industries of the Future by Alec Ross
This sweeping discussion of how technology can transform our world for the better and worse brilliantly picked up on what I view as the most important technology for transformation: blockchain, the technology underlying cryptocurrencies. It also inspired me to refocus my efforts to bring about positive change.
— Don Tapscott (TED Talk: How the blockchain is changing money and business)

The Mandibles: A Family, 2029–2047 by Lionel Shriver
This great novel imagines an entirely plausible dystopia in the near future. While this might not to seem scream “hopeful,” it really is in the sense that it shows how true adversity can bring out the best in people — something critical to remember in the coming year.
— Ian Bremmer (TED Talk: How the US should use its superpower status)

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien
This is an inspiring novel about two classical musicians and their loved ones trying to survive two horrific events in China: Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, which lasted from 1966 through 1976, and the Tiananmen Square demonstration and the massacre of protesters in 1989. It serves as a beautiful homage to the human spirit — and to music.
— Don Tapscott 

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson
This is one of the most exquisite nonfiction books I’ve ever read. It is written like a novel, filled with human-centered stories about what it takes to make huge transformational change in our personal lives and our nation as a whole.
— Courtney Martin 

When you get rained in

Take This Stallion by Anaïs Duplan
An hour with this book will change even the pitch of your internal thoughts, as poet Duplan reshapes it with her vivid and hypnotizing words. Each poem promises a new and reviving experience, whether it’s the hypothetical secret philosophical life of Kardashian-West or a peanut salesperson knocking on a door. Duplan’s writing is bold and dangerous, rough and intelligent, angelic and humble. It has the power to look into readers’ souls and know them.
— Siyanda Mohutsiwa (TED Talk: How young Africans found a voice on Twitter)

Chanting in the Hillsides: The Buddhism of Nishiren Daishonin in Wales and the Borders by Jeaneane and Merv Fowler
Although it’s about a Welsh group of the Soka Gakkai International, a Japanese movement based on the teachings of a 13th-century Buddhist priest, this clear and enthusiastic book is accessible to all readers. One quote in particular had a huge impact on me: “Among the teachings of the Lotus Sutra, that of women attaining Buddhahood is foremost.” I’d never read anything like that before, and it made me feel empowered.
— Wanda Diaz Merced (TED Talk: How a blind astronomer found a way to hear the stars)

Global Chorus: 365 Voices on the Future of the Planet edited by Todd MacLean
This inspirational book features 365 messages for the future of our planet from gurus, politicians, athletes, humanitarians, children and others. Among those contributing their wisdom are the Dalai Lama, Jane Goodall, Maya Angelou, Stephen Hawking and Mikhail Gorbachev. Their words will give you hope for the future of humankind and the environment.
— Jill Heinerth (TED Talk: The mysterious world of underwater caves)

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
This novel, written by a Japanese author, is a complete work of fantasy, but it succeeds in transporting you to a world that makes you believe in prophecies. It also exudes hope as its characters display so much immense kindness, a quality I believe is much needed now to strengthen humanity.
— Mileha Soneji (TED Talk: Simple hacks for life with Parkinson’s)

Odes to Common Things by Pablo Neruda
Neruda’s words invite us to fully enter into our own world and space by urging us to embrace the ambiguity and intimacy of daily living. Learning to listen and to hear, to look and to see are gifts that we can give to ourselves that will enrich our lives and our ability to learn, live and love. By providing us with a new perception on everyday things, all that surrounds us can transcend the common and becomes extraordinary.
— Timothy Ihrig (TED Talk: What we can do to die well)

Tenth of December: Stories by George Saunders
Saunders’ short stories are weird and sometimes dark, but no one is better at writing about the awful, beautiful vulnerability of being human. In a commencement speech, he once famously said, “What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness,” and this imperative toward decency also motivates his characters. They don’t always know exactly how to be good or kind, but still they tackle the hard work of being a person in the world.
— Mandy Len Catron (TED Talk: Falling in love is the easy part)

Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living by Krista Tippett
This book is full of the same kind of nuanced, wide-ranging intelligence about what makes us human as her radio show and podcast, “On Being.” You’ll close the last page feeling intelligently hopeful about how our wounds actually do serve to make us more wise and connected.
— Courtney Martin (TED Talk: The new American dream)

The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment by Eckhart Tolle
I began my meditation practice simply by learning, in part from this book, what it meant to be “in the now.” I practiced finding the space between my thoughts, curious to see where my mind would go next. It became like a portal into another kind of awareness — into being the one who is aware of awareness. Using this approach, I found it seemed possible to detach from reactivity and egoic fixations and contemplate multiple perspectives with equanimity.
— Alyssa Monk (TED Talk: How loss helped one artist find beauty in imperfection)

If You Want to Write: A Book About Art, Independence and Spirit by Brenda Ueland
For those who know they have something to express, these stressful times can feel a bit hopeless — it may seem impossible to find the time, skill and energy to create. This is one of the most timeless books on how to regain that hope, and it’s also a delightful read, in and of itself.
— Sebastian Wernicke (TED Talk: How to use data to make a hit TV show)

When you’re reading to or with kids

The Fox and the Star by Coralie Bickford Smith
This picture book is about a fox in a dense forest whose only friend is a star named Star. One day when Star disappears, Fox is left to face the darkness alone. A gorgeously illustrated story of self-discovery after feeling utterly and completely lost, it will comfort the eyes and the soul.
— Safwat Saleem (TED Talk: Why I keep speaking up, even when people mock my accent)

Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson
The saying goes that you can’t pick your family, but it’s wrong. Sure, you may not be able to swap out your blood relatives, but you can opt to expand your family circle and make your life crazier, funnier and more filled with love. When I was a kid, this strange and marvelous Finnish children’s book (part of a series) made me yearn for a busy house filled with friends, guests and extended family — a community of individuals who love each other for exactly who they are. I’m still making my own Moominfamily, full of people who give me the greatest hope.
— Emma Marris (TED Talk: Nature is everywhere; we just need to learn to see it)

You Are Special by Max Lucado
This is a beautiful children’s book. I’ve read it to my four boys, and I’ve cried more than a few tears while doing so! The story takes place in a village inhabited by small wooden people, known as the Wemicks. The central character, Punchinello, is constantly being judged by the other Wemicks. The very hopeful message here is the importance of not allowing ourselves to be held captive to the criticism or the praise handed out by the people around us. Instead, we can get to a place where neither the criticism nor the praise sticks to us, and we are free to be who we were created to be. The most hopeful piece of the message: we can all get there.
— Jim Hemerling (TED Talk: 5 ways to lead in an era of constant change)

I’m a Frog! (An Elephant and Piggie Book) by Mo Willems
My children adore Willems’ funny and charming books about a pig and an elephant who are best friends. They are early reader books with a very simple vocabulary, but they still manage to come across as sophisticated and witty (in a six-year-old kind of way). This one is my favorite. It ends with a funny punchline but also with one elephant’s realization that he really is the teller of his own story, as are we all.
— Emma Marris (TED Talk: Nature is everywhere; we just need to learn to see it)

When you’re looking for a read that gives your brain something to chew on

The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in the Age of Distraction by Matthew Crawford
Did you think being an individual was to be free of all relations and encumbrances and demands? Think again, says Crawford. We are a social animal, and we only become ourselves when attending to the demands of that which allows us to lose our detached self-possession.
— Sajay Samuel (TED Talk: How college loans exploit students for profit)

Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space by Keller Easterling
A subversive book on the infrastructure of our cities, it takes a serious look at how laws, building codes and construction standards have shaped how our buildings and cities are built. We often assume that the construction of infrastructure — like sewers, roads and broadband cables — is neutral and rational, when its distribution, in fact, closely reflects our wider political, social and economic realities. This is a book about how power can be exercised via means that we usually pay little attention to and about how it may be hacked, appropriated and subverted, approaches that may also have application beyond architecture and urban planning.
— Alison Killing 

The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love and the Meaning of Life by Alison Gopnik
This fascinating book offers an intriguing dive into the minds of our young and how they develop and function. Gopnik encourages us to revisit many of our assumptions on these subjects and to confront anew the the meaning of life and other philosophical big questions. Whatever your take on her overarching point — that our children can enlighten us adults — her book is bound to make you think and to find hope in the miracle of the human mind.
— Isaac Lidsky (TED Talk: What reality are you creating for yourself?)

But What if We’re Wrong? Thinking about the Present as if It Were the Past by Chuck Klosterman
This may be a surprising pick for a “hopeful” book, but it’s worth the read. Klosterman reminds us how many things we think we know to be true turn out not to be so. That’s something we should remind ourselves going forward, and given your starting point, that might be quite a hopeful message.
— Ian Bremmer 

Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space by Janna Levin
A century ago, Albert Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves resulting from black hole collisions. This book tells the fascinating human story of the decades-long effort to “hear” such gravitational waves, and this is a true story of hope with a good outcome: the discovery of gravitational waves was announced after this book went to press!
— Dave Brain (TED Talk: What a planet needs to sustain life)

The Spirit Level: Why Equality Is Better for Everyone by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson
If you want facts to back up your belief that equality makes for a better society for us all, then this is the book for you. And if you do not believe that a more level playing field can help aid contentment, then prepare yourself to be challenged. An energizing and challenging read.
— Sandi Toksvig

Any book by Lillian Smith
A writer and social critic, Smith explores how we can extend our worldview while concurrently exploring our perceptions of self. Our external life journey can only progress as much as we take the time to go inward and understand ourselves. In this light, we all possess the ability to travel and grow as long as we walk both ways.
— Timothy Ihrig

When you want a dose of reality

We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Adichie’s approach to the politics of gender is sharp and funny and really accessible. Without ever seeming idealistic or naive, she uses her superhuman compassion to imagine a future in which women and men have more possibilities for how to be at home in the world.
— Mandy Len Catron 

Emergency: True Stories from the Nation’s ERs by Mark Brown
Here’s a book of true stories that all take place behind hospital Emergency Department doors. The stories provide hope for the miracles that sometimes do happen and the courage of those who deliver them, as well as the life-and-death reality of medicine.
— Alyson McGregor 

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Sometimes, I think hope is not possible unless we take an honest look at how oppression works in our daily lives. Coates seems to understand that we can’t be hopeful if we can’t see what might need to change. I love this book — written as a letter from the author to his son — because his love for his child ultimately shapes and focuses his honest depiction of what it means to be a black man in America.
— Mandy Len Catron 

How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton
Marcel Proust wrote well over one million words replete with deep insights and observations about human nature, but who has the time to read that much? Luckily, de Botton has distilled Proust’s work into a delightful, witty and wise book about the human condition. It can inspire hope by making you realize that so much of we feel is “modern society unhappiness” is actually a part of human nature.
— Sebastian Wernicke 

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
This memoir is one of the finest books I have read in recent memory. Physician Kalanithi — who died from cancer before he could complete this book — has written a deeply moving story that could be depressing, but in his hands, it’s both insightful and uplifting. The book illuminates the ecosystem of medical care for terminal illness and also provides touching insights into marriage, friendship and family.
— Sayu Bhojwani 

The World as Laboratory: Experiments with Mice, Mazes and Men by Rebecca Lemon
Even if we are influenced, shaped and controlled in our behaviors and actions, at least we are free inside — right? Not so, argues Lemov in his book. The attempt to engineer the interior space of people began over a century ago with the field of behavioral psychology, and its subsequent history is chillingly recounted in this scholarly yet accessible book.
— Sajay Samuel 

A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster by Rebecca Solnit
Almost anything Solnit writes is insightful and moving, but this book especially so. It’s a nonfiction work of history, spirituality and memory about the little utopias that have arisen in the wake of earthquakes, floods, fires and other catastrophes. Forged in emergency, these spontaneous communities of helpful strangers rediscover the joy of reciprocity, benevolence and mutual aid. Solnit’s core argument, which I find refreshing and challenging, is that these temporary bubbles of fellow-feeling are not rare exceptions to human nature; rather, they are the purest possible expression of human nature — a paradise that perhaps, even without the aid of disaster, we can find again.
— Eric Liu (TED Talk: Why ordinary people need to understand power)

Happiness by Jack Underwood
Contrary to what the title suggests, this poetry collection is not just about happiness. It’s a wonderful take on everyday life — on everything from death to cutting into a boiled egg. Portraying a tumult of emotions through the lens of a normal, unromanticized life, it gives words and expression to the often confusing feelings we face every day.
— Ione Wells (TED Talk: How we talk about sexual assault online)

When you’re ready to go forth and kick butt (without being a jerk)

Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies by Jim Collins
This is my all-time favorite business book on why values matter and what good leadership looks like.
— Halla Tomasdottir

Do It Like a Woman … and Change the World by Caroline Criado-Perez
This book is a fantastic collection of inspiring stories by women who have succeeded in monumental achievements — often having had to break through glass ceilings in their fields along the way. Its central message is a hopeful one for women: no matter how much you’ve been told that a career or path isn’t right for you due to your gender, it’s all a myth.
— Ione Wells

Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth
One dominant belief in our culture is that inherited intelligence dictates so much of our success, despite copious examples to the contrary. Duckworth’s research, which is clearly explained in this book, helps spread the good news there’s more to the story of what drives success — and more that we can do to enhance everyone’s chances.
— David Burkus (TED Talk: Why you should know how much your coworkers get paid)

Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success by Adam Grant
This highly insightful read by an organizational professor at Wharton Business School examines the link between our success and our interactions with others and the surprising forces that affect why some people rise to the top of the success ladder while others sink to the bottom. It’s a great book that encourages you to let your heart and values guide much of what you do at work.
— Leila Hoteit

Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson
In a time when America has a president-elect who appears to embody so many of the darker sides of American character — greed, solipsism, anti-intellectualism, historical amnesia — it is reassuring to get to know one of the finest individuals the US ever produced. Isaacson’s biography gives texture and humanity to the iconic scientist, publisher, diplomat and politician. It also reminds us that the key to Franklin’s success — relentlessly forming clubs and associations to find purpose in the company of others — is a method that is available to all of us today. If we want to revitalize a very sick American democracy, we should all begin with three words of advice: Be like Ben.
— Eric Liu

Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela
After reading this book, you’ll unavoidably feel joyful because Mandela surpassed many obstacles and brought his people to freedom.
— Wanda Diaz Merced

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport
We are swimming in distractions from email, text messages and social media, all of them stealing away our attention. Newport brings us some hopeful news: placing our concentration and effort on creating work of value is still a top-tier skill. Then he maps out a path to recovering this skill for those who may have lost it.
— David Burkus 

My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayer
I loved this very candid and intimate story of the first Hispanic woman to reach the US Supreme Court.
— Halla Tómasdóttir