We humans

TED’s giant summer reading list: Books to open right now

Jun 27, 2019

We asked TED speakers, TED-Ed educators and TED Fellows: “What books would you bring with you to a desert island?” In their deliciously diverse responses, you’ll find there’s something for every kind of reader.

When you’re hungry for advice and insight on a very important topic: You

The Traveler’s Gift: Seven Decisions That Determine Personal Success by Andy Andrews
This book demonstrates how you can have a not-so-ideal situation teach you key life lessons through positive thinking. It revisits key points in history and depicts a takeaway for personal success to be learned from each event. These lessons can be applied to both personal and professional aspects of one’s life. It’s a great book for reflection and for helping one plan for resiliency.
— Olympia della Flora (TED Talk: Creative ways to get kids to thrive in school)

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain (TED Talk: The power of introverts)
Regardless of where you happen to fall on the introvert-ambivert-extravert spectrum, I highly recommend this insightful and accessible book. Touchingly personal and well-researched, this book is what inspired me to pursue social psychology during my doctoral program. At this crossroads in US history, it is particularly relevant to understand and celebrate the traits that define each of us as leaders. I am so happy I consumed Quiet via the audio version, since the book’s takeaways really come to life through the understated yet powerful delivery of the narrator.
— Dana Kanze (TED Talk: The real reason female entrepreneurs get less funding)

Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think and Do by Jennifer Eberhardt
Stanford University professor Eberhardt draws on years of her own rigorous academic research and the work of others to effectively break down how bias insidiously operates in each of our lives — as perpetrators, victims, bystanders and helpers — every day. The deeply moving personal and professional experiences that she shares help facilitate a tangible connection to this important subject matter. A must read for scholars and laypeople alike, this book reaches beyond the merely descriptive to prescribe courses of action that have been found to be effective in combating our unconscious bias.
— Dana Kanze (TED Talk: The real reason female entrepreneurs get less funding)

Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert (TED Talk: The psychology of your future self)
It’s hard to walk through a library without stumbling on a book about happiness, but this one is my all-time favorite. Gilbert shares fascinating insights from scientific research on happiness and shows us how our most fundamental assumptions about what will make us happy often turn out to be wrong. This book is so entertaining and funny that I can’t read it in public because it makes me laugh out loud (so it’s perfect for a desert island!).
— Elizabeth Dunn (TED Talk: Helping others makes us happier — but it matters how we do it)

Shared Reality: What Makes Us Strong and Tears Us Apart by E. Tory Higgins
Columbia University professor Higgins introduces readers to his fascinating social psychological theory of “shared reality” with patience and passion. Although the theoretical underpinnings run deep, readers can easily forge an intimate relationship with these findings. Perhaps the ultimate “desert island” book topic, shared reality enables us to better understand our innate yearning to connect meaningfully with others. More important now than ever, this book helps us be better parents, friends, partners, coworkers and community members by sharing what is real about the world around us.
— Dana Kanze (TED Talk: The real reason female entrepreneurs get less funding)

Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life by Byron Katie
A great book that provides guidance on how to confront the mind in simple terms with four questions. These four questions can help start you on the quest towards unraveling the tricks that our minds can play which lead to so much interpersonal conflict.
— Eldra Jackson (TED Talk: How I unlearned dangerous lessons about masculinity)

Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up by Patricia Ryan Madson
This book is a refreshing change from the usual self-help psychology in that it introduces you to improv and its principles and applies them to everyday life. I enjoyed learning more about the art of improv and having the opportunity to think about how I approach life and to try something different. It’s also a concise, well-organized book that is easy to revisit over and over. I recommend trying improv if you can — it’s unbelievably fun.
— Sabine Doebel (TED Talk: How your brain’s executive function works)

Cribsheet: A Data-Driven Guide to Better, More Relaxed Parenting, from Birth to Preschool by Emily Oster
When I was pregnant with my son, I was shocked by the unscientific and often paternalistic advice that women are given about what they can and can’t do while they’re pregnant (really, no sushi allowed?!). So, I was delighted to discover Oster’s first book, Expecting Better, which replaces these pronouncements with a calm, clear-headed look at the often-shaky evidence behind them. In Cribsheet, she has turned her invaluable lens on the first years of a child’s life. This book not only provides evidence-based recommendations and reassurance for new parents but also offers a highly accessible introduction to thinking critically about science.
— Elizabeth Dunn (TED Talk: Helping others makes us happier — but it matters how we do it)

How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence by Michael Pollan (TED Talk: A plant’s eye view)
If there were one book that I could make everyone read — outside my primary life’s focus of reforming our system of agriculture — it would be this one. In short, psychedelic drugs can be used as therapy for everything from addiction and depression to the existential angst that accompanies the dying process for many people. Pollan brings his exceptional storytelling skills and his journalistic sense of skepticism to the history and the current science around psychedelics. Riveting, fascinating and enjoyable.
— Bruce Friedrich (TED Talk: The next global agricultural revolution)

The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Wisdom by Don Miguel Ruiz
This is a book that speaks to freedom — freedom from the self-imposed incarceration of the mind and emotions. When I choose to engage in self- limiting beliefs, I lock down my ability to live my full potential. This book provides insight in a short and direct manner as to how it’s possible to begin to take the steps of freeing yourself from crippling thoughts and self-talk.
— Eldra Jackson (TED Talk: How I unlearned dangerous lessons about masculinity)

A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose by Eckhart Tolle
This book has surprised me with hundreds of realizations about life, relationships, communication between people, emotions, and much more. People can read it on many levels: you can skim it and find a lot of interesting ideas — such as why we always seem to want more or why most people argue so much in their relationships — or you can read it slowly and re-read whole sentences and paragraphs to discover a deeper meaning in so many of them. The book may give you a new point-of-view on many situations and relationships in your life and possibly, a new outlook on the world.
— Lýdia Machová (TED Talk: The secrets of learning a new language)

Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Life and Love from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed
I never really considered that I could ask a stranger for advice — like really ask them and mean it — until I read this book and met Sugar. Sugar, the pseudonym under which Strayed wrote a real-life column, takes my breath away with her exceptionally human words of wisdom. Her words are both 100 percent unexpected and so obviously the right answer. My favorite thing about how she responds to people’s letters is that she has mastered the art of using her own incredibly intense life experiences to give advice that is really not all about her somehow (which isn’t a skill that most of us possess.) She steps into the person’s world, flips on a light for them with her own hard-fought insights, and then says to them what no one else will say — with a big, fat, healing hug.
— Elizabeth Lyle (TED Talk: How to break bad management habits before they reach the next generation of leaders)

When you’re willing to put in personal time to be your best self at work

Dare to Lead: Brave Work, Tough Conversations, Whole Hearts by Brené Brown (TED Talk: Listening to shame)
This is my favorite of all of Brown’s books. I’ve read all of her previous books, and I appreciate that this one allows the reader to revisit important points from the earlier titles. I read Dare the weekend it was released. It came at a time when I was going through some personal and professional challenges and helped keep me grounded and focused.
— Liz Kleinrock (TED Talk: How to teach kids about taboo topics)

US Army Survival Manual: FM 21-76 by Department of Defense
I picked this one because if I were really stuck on a desert island, this would be the book that’s the most useful. However, there’s also a ton of really great stuff that applies to business and life, especially in the beginning. A sample tidbit: “The greatest enemies in a combat survival and evasion situation are fear and panic. If uncontrolled, they can destroy your ability to make an intelligent decision. They may cause you to react to your feelings and imagination rather than to your situation. They can drain your energy and thereby cause other negative emotions. Previous survival and evasion training and self-confidence will enable you to vanquish fear and panic.” Overall, the first few chapters of the book read like a business or personal psychology book if you replace combat with business — or even daily life.
— Chieh Huang (TED Talk: Confessions of a recovering micromanager)

The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation and Growth by Amy Edmondson (TED Talk: How to turn a group of strangers into a team)
This is the definitive guide to creating the conditions under which human beings can collaborate, innovate and thrive. It’s the book you want when you’re trying to do hard things with other people (for example, trying to get back from that desert island).
— Frances Frei (TED Talk: How to build and rebuild trust)

Teachers as Cultural Workers: Letters to Those Who Dare to Teach by Paolo Freire
This book reflected back at me my purpose in the world and challenged me to truly honor it. If you have ever thought about teaching, particularly as a transformational endeavor, Teachers as Cultural Workers is for you.
— Frances Frei (TED Talk: How to build and rebuild trust)

Rebel Talent: Why It Pays to Break the Rules at Work and in Life by Francesca Gino
I first heard Gino speak on NPR’s Hidden Brain podcast about the role of rebels in creating real and profound change. At the time, I had been reflecting about how to acknowledge and honor my lived experiences and allow them to inform my professional work. Her evidence-based take on rebels as innovators and positive change agents — as opposed to the stereotypical person in arms against the opposition — inspired me to lean into my own authentic rebel talents and to break some rules along the way.
— Leah Georges (TED Talk: How generational stereotypes hold us back at work)

When you long to lose yourself in a thrilling, page-turning read

City of Thieves by David Benioff
There is nothing I like more than a WWII-era historical fiction, and I’ve read many such novels but this one sticks out. It breathes so much warmth, color and interest into what I now realize I’d mistakenly whitewashed and overlooked as bleak, cold, war-torn, Stalinist Russia. The plot is unexpected and quick, and I promise that Lev and Kolya are protagonists you want to spend hours trudging through the snow with as it unfolds.
— Elizabeth Lyle (TED Talk: How to break bad management habits before they reach the next generation of leaders)

Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep
Wonder what happened to Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird, after her Pulitzer-Prize winning book was published in 1960 and turned into a major motion picture starring Gregory Peck? Wonder no more. Cep delivers all that in the final third of this I-really-couldn’t-put-it-down crime thriller. The first two parts are equally compelling, focused as they are on a rural preacher who is killing his kin for their insurance payouts (most didn’t even know he’d taken out a policy on them) and the savvy attorney who defended both the preacher (repeatedly getting him acquitted) and the preacher’s killer (also getting him acquitted). But the heart-breaking soul of Furious Hours is the slow, sad decline of Lee.
— Steven Petrow (TED Talk: 3 ways to practice civility)

The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay
This novel takes place at a time right before apartheid became formalized, and it really shows how much animosity existed in South Africa then. The focus is on a British boy growing up and how he was bullied. This story is quite inspirational and shows how he was able to succeed during a tough time when life seemed to be working against him.
— Juliet Brophy (TED Talk: How a new species of human is changing our theory of evolution)

Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana
A first-person account of life on board a marine merchant sailing ship en route from Boston to San Diego through Cape Horn two centuries ago. It’s a fascinating adventure, an important historical piece of social commentary, and a vivid time capsule from early California in the 1830s — when Monterey was the largest city on the coast with … 100 houses. Worth re-discovering.
— Romain Lacombe (TED talk: A personal air-quality tracker that lets you know what you’re breathing)

Angels in the Sky: How a Band of Volunteer Airmen Saved the New State of Israel by Robert Gandt
In 1948, Israel declared independence and five surrounding nations went to war. Learn how an international band of aviators scrounged airplanes and parts from all over the world to put together what became the Israeli Air Force. It’s written like a movie script with a hook at the end of each chapter. Then, read past the end to see what else these people did later in life.
— Jonathan Wilker (TED Talk: What sticky sea creatures can teach us about making glue)

The Changeling by Victor LaValle
I started this book on the day slotted for back-to-school clothes shopping for my kids, and we never made it to the store — thus, my kids wore too-small clothes to the first day of school in 2017. LaValle’s snappy prose, fabulous characters and penetrating observations made this one of Time Magazine’s Top 10 Books of the Year. Be warned: This book leans scary — not my usual fare but it was worth it — as LaValle leads the new genre of “literary horror.” It’s the kind of smart escapist fare that will make you forget you are on a desert island.
— Dolly Chugh (TED Talk: How to let go of being a “good” person and become a better person)

The Changeling is folklore in its purest most sublime form. LaValle had me believing in the possibility that evil giants and portals to otherworldly realms really did exist all over New York City. Protagonist Apollo Kagwa’s journey to save his son froths with danger and hope — it’s everything the Brothers Grimm seared into their fairy tales and more.
— Gabby Rivera (TED Talk: The story of Marvel’s first queer Latina superhero)

Tishomingo Blues by Elmore Leonard
It’s a cheat, but I’m bringing all of Elmore Leonard’s books to this desert island. OK, fine, if I need to pick only one it’s Tishomingo Blues. A high diver witnesses a murder, the Mississippi mob and a Detroit drug ring edges southward, and it all culminates in a Civil War reenactment. So slick and it would make an amazing movie.
— Jonathan Wilker (TED Talk: What sticky sea creatures can teach us about making glue)

The Elementals by Michael McDowell
McDowell deals in horror — he actually earned his doctorate at Brandeis by writing about death and Stephen King considered him a prodigy. This is a sleeper hit so vivid you will imagine yourself in the sand. What could be better for a summer read?!?
— Kim Gorgens (TED Talk: The surprising connection between brain injuries and crime)

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
I read McMurtry’s books all through my teens. As a child of the American West, I took comfort in the historical backdrop that I so rarely found in other novels. He also opened doors for me in my imagination about the diversity of human relationships and ways of loving.
— Eve Pearlman (TED Talk: How to lead a conversation between people who disagree)

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
I leave the heady intellectual recommendations to my colleagues on this list, and this book is for the reader interested in escaping from reality, if only for a few pages at a time. Nothing is more escapist than a sweeping post-apocalyptic romp written by one of the few female authors in the genre. Mandel’s book is everything you want in a summer read: equal parts nail-biting anxiety, sadness, humor and sarcasm.
— Kim Gorgens (TED Talk: The surprising connection between brain injuries and crime)

Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
Want to get lost in a political world of intrigue where one individual exerts enormous power over all aspects of the state? I’m not talking contemporary politics; I’m talking about this historically fictionalized account of the rise and rise of Thomas Cromwell during the reign of King Henry VIII in England. Mantel is a genius writer, and the only disappointing thing is that the third installment isn’t out yet …
— Nadjia Yousif (TED Talk: Why you should treat the tech you use at work like a colleague)

Apollo: The Behind-the-Scenes Story of One of Humankind’s Greatest Achievements by Charles Murray and Catherine Bly Cox
The history of the US space program is not what you might think. This book tells the engineers’ story, including how the first Mercury capsule was transported over to the rocket atop mattresses from Sears in the back of a borrowed pickup truck. This is an amazing tale of what can be accomplished when people work together with a shared purpose.
— Jonathan Wilker (TED Talk: What sticky sea creatures can teach us about making glue)

Bad Habits: A Love Story by Cristy C. Road
There’s no other graphic novel that has impacted me more than Bad Habits. The artwork alone is astonishing, like kick-you-in-the-neck-and-shake-you-by-the-spirit type of artwork. Road is miraculous both as illustrator and author. This book is a blessing and an offering to all generations of creative brilliant punk outcast kids across the universe forever and ever.
— Gabby Rivera (TED Talk: The story of Marvel’s first queer Latina superhero)

Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan
This WW II tale is one of the most extraordinary adventures ever written. Fiction based on real-life events with so many twists and turns it reads like the best mystery novel you have ever read. But it is true …
— Juan Enriquez (TED Talk: The age of genetic wonder)

When you enjoy reading about other people’s families

Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry
Berry is a master storyteller whose novels immerse you in the rich community life of the residents of Port William, Kentucky. Jayber Crow is the town barber and resident philosopher, a man whose ordinary life is lived for the greater good. As a Kentucky native, I felt like Jayber had been expecting me, inviting me to remember that I was made for community.
— Paula Stone Williams (TED Talk with Jonathan Williams: The story of a parent’s transition and a son’s redemption)

A Doubter’s Almanac by Ethan Canin
This novel is a story of broken grace and reconciliation between fathers and sons. It’s a gripping account of what it means to love in the midst of one’s own woundedness.
— Jonathan Williams (TED Talk with Paula Stone Williams: The story of a parent’s transition and a son’s redemption)

The Death of Bunny Munro by Nick Cave
Cave’s work as an author translates so well from his songwriting. There are so many moments in this novel — which is about a father and his young son on the road in the south of England — where you are prompted to draw your own conclusions and interpretations of the events. It really kept me engaged the whole time. Plus, if I was stranded, it’d be nice to read something over and over and extract something new every time.
— Tom Thum (TED Talk: The orchestra in my mouth)

The Island by Victoria Hislop
This is a wonderfully written novel of a young woman who discovers her family’s dark history is closely connected to the Cretan island of Spinalonga, which hosted a leper colony for much of the 20th century. I personally read it while on holiday on Crete, and I visited the island of Spinalonga on my last day which made the reading experience even more intense. If you like to put yourself in a character’s shoes, I would recommend it as the perfect read for a desert island.
— Lýdia Machová (TED Talk: The secrets of learning a new language)

The Affairs of the Falcons by Melissa Rivero
I’m not too much into fiction, but this novel is just so apropos given everything that’s happening in our world today. It’s a vivid and moving story of an undocumented couple and their two young children fleeing Peru to come to NYC in the 1990s.
— Chieh Huang (TED Talk: Confessions of a recovering micromanager)

The Editor by Steven Rowley
This is the perfect desert island read. It’s a fictionalized account of a struggling gay writer who finds that fate smiles on him when his novel is acquired by … none other than Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Wasn’t that every young writer’s fantasy before the real-life Mrs. Onassis died in 1994? It certainly was mine. At its core, this poignant novel is about family relationships, especially mother-son dysfunctional ones. Protagonist James Smale can’t quite write the ending to his book, and it’s his editor who pushes him to resolve his relationship with his own mother. This leads to the unearthing of a family secret, and yes, an authentic conclusion to the novel within the novel. (Rowley is also the author of the novel Lily and the Octopus.)
— Steven Petrow (TED Talk: 3 ways to practice civility)

The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty by Eudora Welty
Every time I read Welty’s stories, I discover something new or deepened (not least of which is my love for short fiction). Her work spans family dramas, human darkness, and true comedy, and her narratives and characters are captivating. She was a photographer before she was a writer, and that keen eye comes through in her writing, especially in how she captures Southern landscapes. Prepare yourself for layers and, at times, piercing truth.
— Katharine Wilkinson (TED Talk: How empowering women and girls can help stop global warming)

When laughing while you read is your favorite thing to do

Professor Chandra Follows His Bliss by Rajeev Balasubramanyam
I love books that are funny and smart with imperfect characters you can’t help rooting for. This book is all of that and more, as it spoke to my heart, head and soul. Professor Chandra takes us on a journey through his exploration of what it all means but with a light touch. It is the kind of book perfect for a mood pick-me-up during days of loneliness on a desert island.
— Dolly Chugh (TED Talk: How to let go of being a “good” person and become a better person)

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
My favorite book of all time — hilarious, heartbreaking and human. It takes the inanity of bureaucracy and puts it in a setting that is all too serious: war. It’s no wonder they’ve made it into a TV miniseries, but do yourself a favor and go back to the original source.
— Nadjia Yousif (TED Talk: Why you should treat the tech you use at work like a colleague)

Normal People by Sally Rooney
This short French rom-com — but so much more — of a novel is better than the hype. People have claimed that Rooney is the voice of her generation and she really is. But don’t think she is all trend and no substance. Her stories have enormous emotional and political depth, which is what makes her so exciting. This is a book about two friends from very different worlds who fall in and out of love with each other, and it’s about class and money and how the two shape our lives. Sounds old fashioned? It is, and it so isn’t.
— Chiki Sarkar (TED Talk: How India’s smartphone revolution is needing to a new generation of writers)

Calypso by David Sedaris
I’m a psychologist by training so it’s no surprise that my very favorite books celebrate our quirks and failings. Truly, satirist Sedaris puts the “fun” in dysfunctional, and you’ll be a better person for reading this book. Certainly, you’ll come to appreciate the value of being weird. I would bring him and all of his books to a desert island and never want for more.
— Kim Gorgens (TED Talk: The surprising connection between brain injuries and crime)

When you’re curious about the people who changed the world

Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth by Mohandas K. Gandhi
Whose autobiography begins with the sex life of one’s parents? Gandhi’s prose is so simple and so direct that it hasn’t dated, and his voice is so bare and radical that it will enthrall, surprise and shock you. The story he tells — of a young boy growing up in a town in the western state of Gujarat in india in the late 19th century, his struggles with sexuality, and his extraordinary political awakening in race-riven South Africa — is the stuff of legends. If you want to remind yourself of the true nature of politics and how a great political leader is formed, this is the book to read.
— Chiki Sarkar (TED Talk: How India’s smartphone revolution is needing to a new generation of writers)

Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources by Martin Lings
We live in a time where there are a lot of (mis)conceptions about Islam, but no Muslim — Sunni or Shiite, Eastern or Western — will disagree that the life of the Prophet Muhammad embodies its essence. Lings, a scholar of Shakespeare and a student and close friend of C.S. Lewis, provides an intimate portrayal of the life and death of the Muhammad based on sources dating back to the 9th century.
— Muhammed Idris (TED Talk: What refugees need to start new lives)

Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela by Nelson Mandela
As someone who works in South Africa, I enjoy reading about the country’s history and its culture. Nelson Mandela was such an incredibly special and unique person. His hard work shaped so much of how South Africa morphed from apartheid to what it is today. He is an absolute inspiration.
— Juliet Brophy (TED Talk: How a new species of ancestors is changing our theory of human evolution)

The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X, as told to Alex Haley
I read this when I was in eighth grade, and it truly changed my outlook on the world. Malcolm’s transformation, religious journey, and views on identity and race made me who I am today. It’s beautifully written, engaging and dramatic. Each time I read this, I find some beautiful nugget about growing up and finding your purpose in life. I know there are some issues with the accuracy of the manuscript, and as a scholar that interests me greatly. However, as a reader, an American, and a black American, Malcolm X’s story of redemption, loneliness and salvation, reminds me of the highs and lows that I’ve felt many times when I was searching for answers, looking to people who were questioning society in the same way I was, and looking for my place in America.
— Reniqua Allen (TED Talk: The story we tell about millennials and who we leave out)

When you crave an extra bit of beauty and poetry in your life

A Book of Simple Living: Brief Notes from the Hills by Ruskin Bond
If there was one book I could run on the streets with and hand over to as many people as possible as a gift, it would be this book highlighting notes from the hills of Uttarakhand, India. It documents the personal reflections, anecdotes, short essays and wisdom from one of India’s most loved and poetic writers. The words smell of monsoon, the sentences validate the presence of passersby, and the pages are lit with the moon rising between the deodar trees. I have read this book four times and finished it within a day every single time. Bond, through his simple writing, helps you step out of the crowded streets and smell the leaves of lime trees on sun-soaked patches.
— Deepak Ramola (TED Talk: Everyone has a life lesson to share)

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
This Pulitzer-prize winning novel is a WWII-era story of a blind French girl and a German boy. The prose is breathtakingly beautiful — exquisite, really. It’s a book that will stay with you for a long, long time.
— Kimberly Noble (TED Talk: How does income affect childhood brain development?)

Circe by Madeline Miller
This novel is a wonderful meditation of gods, goddesses, humans, mortality and myth. Written beautifully, it brings the ancient Greeks back to life in a way that is relevant to all our lives.
— Juan Enriquez (TED Talk: The age of genetic wonder)

Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver by Mary Oliver
I first read Mary Oliver’s poetry at age 16. For two decades, it has been a source of nourishment, solace, inspiration and guidance. I love her love for this world and all its beings, the way she attends to smallness while calling us to play big, and how intentionally, wholeheartedly in relationship she is. In this beautiful curation of her life’s work, there is so much to delight in and learn from.
— Katharine Wilkinson (TED Talk: How empowering women and girls can help stop global warming)

For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow was Enuf: a choreopoem by Ntozake Shange
This is one of my all-time favorite books, and every read in the last 30 years gives me new insights. Time on a deserted island would allow me to dig in and likely see a whole new layer I didn’t recognize before.
— Tarana Burke (TED Talk: Me Too is a movement, not a moment)

When you’re filled with questions about the earth and its creatures

Pseudodoxia Epidemica by Sir Thomas Browne
I spent many months in the British library, scouring hundreds of books in search of great stories for my book The Truth About Animals. This was one of my favorites. Browne, an Oxford-educated philosopher, was essentially a 17th-century mythbuster. This book is his intellectual assault on what he referred to as “vulgar errors” — the vast suite of popular misconceptions propagated by religious bestiaries and clogging up the emerging discipline of natural science. With zeal so earnest that it is pure comedy, he investigates myths such as whether dead kingfishers make good weather vanes (he tried; they don’t), or if badgers have legs that are shorter on one side than the other. It is a fantastic insight into the evolution of science and scientific process.
— Lucy Cooke (TED Talk: Sloths — the strange life of the world’s slowest mammal)

The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution by Richard Dawkins and Yan Wong
I was fortunate to be taught zoology by Dawkins at Oxford. He may have been a truly terrifying man to write an essay for, but he is a brilliant scientific communicator — especially on the subject of evolution. This is my favorite of all his books. It is an epic journey back through time to meet our “concestors”: the closest common ancestors that we share with 40 creatures (from chimpanzees to bacteria). Dawkins models his book on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, breaking it up into “The Marsupial Mole’s Tale,” “The Elephant Bird’s Tale,” and many others. In each tale, he looks at an aspect of the tree of life or at evolution in general. The result is a big, almost encyclopedic compendium bursting with information and ideas.
— Lucy Cooke (TED Talk: Sloths — the strange life of the world’s slowest mammal)

The Chemistry Book: From Gunpowder to Graphene, 250 Milestones in the History of Chemistry by Derek B. Lowe
This book is a masterclass in science communication — it’s intriguing, informative, and most importantly, fun. With the help of beautiful visuals, Lowe succinctly explains complex scientific concepts, discoveries, laboratory equipment, techniques, and of course, the chemicals that are most important to our daily lives. It’s a must-read for every moist bag of chemical reactions.
— Christopher Bahl, TED Fellow

Underbug: An Obsessive Tale of Termites and Technology by Lisa Margonelli
Termites are the unloved freaks of the social insect world. While bees are praised for their pollination skills and ants are lauded for their industry, termites are an affront to human civilization, munching their way through everything we hold dear — our libraries, our homes, even our cash. In 2011, an errant gang of termites burrowed into an Indian bank and ate $220,000 in bank notes! But as Margonelli’s mesmerizing book makes clear, we have got termites all wrong. For a start these “white ants” aren’t ants at all but cockroaches that evolution has shrunk, blinded and turned surprisingly social (all of which does little for their public relations). The termite bucks basic biological rules and thumbs its nose at science as much as it does homeowners. But this mystery makes termites fascinating to the author and a motley crew of multidisciplinary scientists who are all trying to crack the termite code and put it to good use. As we stand “on the border of our natural history and an unnatural future,” this masterly book is a timely, thought-provoking exploration of what it means to be human — as much as what it means to be termite — and a penetrating look at the moral challenges of our ongoing technological revolution.
— Lucy Cooke (TED Talk: Sloths — the strange life of the world’s slowest mammal)

Figuring by Maria Popova
This is an ocean-deep and sky-uplifting book, an elaborate feast for both brain and soul. Written by the beyond brilliant Popova (of the Brainpickings site), it explores colossal questions through the interwoven lives of historical figures across centuries and disciplines including science, literature and art. There are galaxies of themes in the cosmos of Figuring – it’s a literary masterpiece like nothing else — but most of all, it’s a book on love, on meaning, on beauty, and on being.
— Yana Buhrer Tavanier (TED Talk: How to recover from activism burnout)

Unnatural Selection by Katrina van Grouw
If I was on a deserted island and able to sling together a coffee table, I would proudly display and review this book over and over again. It’s a beautiful melding of evolutionary science with van Grouw’s 400+ illustrations of living animals and skeletons which she and her husband articulated. Artificial selection has never been more beautiful or intriguing.
— Kenny Coogan (TED-Ed Lessons: The wild world of carnivorous plants and Why are sloths so slow?)

Next Nature: Nature Changes Along with Us by Koert van Mensvoort
This is a book that says that technology cannot be separated from nature. We cannot go back to nature, but it’s possible move forward to nature. Through examples and scientific insights, it discusses what this nature will be and where our “technosphere” will grow towards.
— Marjan van Aubel (TED Talk: The beautiful future of solar power)

When you need books that you can enjoy along with your kids

The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1,001 Nights
As a child, this book of short stories opened up my eyes to a different world, a world of epics and resolution and of friendship and loyalty. Some of the views involving sexuality, gender and social class certainly have limitations set in its historical context, but even those are part of the insights into a rich culture. My favorite story was that of Sinbad. May we all be blessed with heart-stopping adventures and a restless soul.
— Shunan Teng (TED-Ed Lessons: The history of tea, The Chinese myth of the immortal white snake, part I, and The Chinese myth of the immortal white snake, part II)

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi
If you’re a fantasy fan, I can’t recommend this book enough! I read it in one day at the beach last summer, and I couldn’t put it down. The first in the series, Children is a West African-inspired tale filled with magic and adventure.
— Liz Kleinrock (TED Talk: How to teach kids about taboo topics)

Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney
I credit this picture book for the work I do today. My parents used to read it to me as a kid, and it taught me the importance of doing something to contribute to your community and make the world more beautiful.
— Liz Kleinrock (TED Talk: How to teach kids about taboo topics)

My Sweet Orange Tree by José Mauro de Vasconcelos
This book is the first part of a tetralogy, set in different life stages of the main character Zeze. A sweet little novel by a Brazilian writer, it’s a classic from the 1960s. The translated version was popular where I grew up, and I read it over and over again, like many other Iranians of my generation. I was shocked to learn that the novel is not that well known in English-speaking cultures as it is in the Middle East and Europe, so I am hoping to put it on the map and share the joy of this innocent book with others.
— Kiana Hayeri (TED Talk: How the Afghan youth are staging a quiet rebellion)

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
I’ve reread this book many times in my life, and I always get something new out of it. I first picked it up in 4th grade, and to this day it keeps me laughing and thinking critically about the way I see the world. It’s one of the smartest books I’ve ever read.
— Liz Kleinrock (TED Talk: How to teach kids about taboo topics)

Knots on a Counting Rope by Bill Martin Jr. & John Archambault
When I was a child, Knots was the first book that opened my eyes to the power of profound storytelling. It shook me in a way that I have never forgotten. I memorized the story, the pictures and the feelings I had about the generational storytelling of a grandfather to his blind grandson. The rope, a visual depiction of the passing of time, is a profound metaphor. However, the book, though beautifully written and illustrated, has received some deserved criticism for its inauthentic depiction of Native-American culture. An important and worthy literary lesson in and of itself.
— Leah Georges (TED Talk: How generational stereotypes hold us back at work)

Bloody Jack series by L.A. Meyer, audiobooks narrated by Katherine Kellgren
If you’re a fan of audiobooks, then I can’t recommend the Bloody Jack series enough. The books follow Jacky Faber, a girl from 19th-century England who dresses up as a boy and joins the British Navy. The books are so much fun that I love them on their own, but I absolutely adore the audiobooks. Katherine Kellgren is a goddess of a narrator who not only does hundreds of voices throughout the series but sings in many of the voices as well. It’s astounding and definitely worth a listen.
— Emily Quinn (TED Talk: The way we think about biological sex is wrong)

Wonder by RJ Palacio
I wish this book had existed when I was a kid. It’s a wonderful middle-grade reader, although I’ve read it aloud to my 3rd and 4th graders. It does an amazing job of building perspective taking and challenges us to consider the things that others might be going through that we don’t see on the surface.
— Liz Kleinrock (TED Talk: How to teach kids about taboo topics)

Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, audiobooks voiced by Jim Dale or Stephen Fry
If you haven’t listened to the Harry Potter audiobooks, stop what you’re doing and download them. I prefer the Jim Dale version, although many people prefer the Stephen Fry versions. I’ve listened to the series probably five or six times by now, and I could never get sick of them. The characters come to life in a way that they just don’t when you read them. I’m a ridiculously fast reader, so when I listen to the audiobooks, it allows me to really take everything in and I’m constantly noticing new, juicy tidbits.
— Emily Quinn (TED Talk: The way we think about biological sex is wrong)

The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss
This is a book about a family stranded on a desert island. Not only is it entertaining, but one can also get practical advice on how to thrive on a desert island. What shines through the most in this book is how enthusiastic the characters are. Their uplifting attitude, a curious mind in the face of uncertainties, and an encyclopedia abundance of knowledge is exactly what one needs to survive.
— Shunan Teng (TED-Ed Lessons: The history of tea, The Chinese myth of the immortal white snake, part I, and The Chinese myth of the immortal white snake, part II)

When you’re looking for books about being a woman

Women’s Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind by Mary Field Belenky, Blythe Mcvicker Clinchy, Nancy Rule Goldberger and Jill Mattuck Tarule

and

In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development by Carol Gilligan

This pair of books, each of which I read in college, has informed how I think about knowledge and meaning. They empowered me to understand that how I thought, sensed, and felt — how I made story and meaning — was different than many of the norms that had been defined and developed by men.
— Eve Pearlman (TED Talk: How to lead a conversation between people who disagree)

The Fifth Trimester: The Working Mom’s Guide to Style, Sanity, and Success After Baby by Lauren Smith Brody
The first three trimesters take place during pregnancy, and people often refer to the “fourth trimester” as the first three months after birth. Brody has coined the term “fifth trimester,” referring to the time when mothers frequently go back to work after maternity leave. This witty guide is hilarious and honest. It reads like having a conversation with a friend who understands the juggles and struggles that working parents face.
— Kimberly Noble (TED Talk: How does income affect childhood brain development?)

Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger by Soraya Chemaly (TED Talk: The power of women’s anger )
Women have historically been indoctrinated to suppress our justified anger, allowing for our continued, systematic subjugation in the spaces and places where power resides. Chemaly’s well-grounded, feminist manifesto is a rallying cry for women to channel that rage towards action. This is more important than ever as women’s personal autonomy is threatened across the US through restrictive legislation impacting our reproductive rights. (Read an excerpt from the book here.)
— Ivonne Roman(TED Talk: How policewomen make communities safer)

When you want to expand your understanding of religion and spirituality

God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens
This book would be a riot to read while on a desert island. It’s a piercing characterization of how organized social structures are inherently self-destructive to seeking the deeper meanings of being, nature, and the universe. It would be richly entertaining to contemplate its idea while entirely removed from society but engulfed by nature and the abyss.
— Brandon Clifford (TED Talk: The architectural secrets of the world’s ancient wonders)

Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion by Rebecca McLaughlin
This book poses a dozen questions for the world’s largest religion, and it’s written for thinking people — both Christians and non-Christians alike. It’s filled with surprising facts and engaging and heart-stopping stories. No matter whether you think the world is better with or without religion, reading this book will help you find many answers that you have likely been searching for.
— Rosalind Picard (TED Talk: An AI smartwatch that detects seizures)

The Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu
If I’m stuck permanently and alone on this island, I would need spiritual grounding and practice, and these 9500-ish words would do nicely.
— Matt Beane (TED Talk: How do we learn to work with intelligent machines?)

When you’re itching to get creative

The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity by Julia Cameron
Right now I’m reading and working through this book, and the process has been game-changing for me, both creatively and personally. It has reignited creative flames that have long burnt out, and I’ve been so much more in tune with myself since beginning it. The Artist’s Way is meant to be read over the course of three months, so it’s the perfect activity for anyone looking to spark their creativity this summer.
— Emily Quinn (TED Talk: The way we think about biological sex is wrong)

Dear Photograph by Taylor Jones
This book has lived in the middle of my living-room coffee table for the better part of a decade. The collection of pictures of old photographs taken in the same location many years later is profound storytelling with very few words. This collection inspired me to do the same with many of the pictures of my family’s past, which has resulted in tears, nostalgic stories, and laughter in our home. Jones regularly updates the dearphotograph website and her social media accounts with new photos and stories.
— Leah Georges (TED Talk: How generational stereotypes hold us back at work)

Dragon Warriors by Dave Morris and Oliver Johnson
I realize this is an unconventional choice, but we’re talking about a desert island here. Dragon Warriors is a set of rules and scenarios for a role-playing game, the most famous example of which is Dungeons and Dragons. I’d take this book with me to remind me of my friends, because most of my truest and oldest friendships were forged over the gaming table. (I include Dave and Oliver themselves — I was 12 when they published Dragon Warriors, but I now play games regularly with them. A fan’s dream come true.) But it’s also the perfect companion for a solitary life. It would give me inspiration during months or years spent creating imaginary worlds, waiting for the moment when I’d be able to share them again with my friends.
— Tim Harford (TED Talk: A powerful way to unleash your natural creativity)

Design As An Attitude by Alice Rawsthorn (TED Talk: Pirates, nurses and other rebel designers)
This book gives a very accurate and current overview of design today and how this applies to the world and to life and what design can do to make a change.
— Marjan van Aubel (TED Talk: The beautiful future of solar power)

The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life by Twyla Tharp
Tharp is a dancer and choreographer, and I understand very little of that craft but I was drawn to her book when I saw it sitting on a table at a bookstore 15 years ago. She is a pragmatist and a true original. Her book is a terrific source of battle-tested advice about hard work, surviving failure, and living a creative life. I often find myself thinking about its lessons and retelling the stories in my own talks.
— Tim Harford (TED Talk: A powerful way to unleash your natural creativity)

Just Looking: Essays on Art by John Updike
This book is an ice cream cone with sprinkles on top. It is a writer’s commentary on his own experience looking at works of art. I love to peruse its pages and pictures, then read selected essays. There is no jargon or art-historian speak; it is simply what Updike sees in the works that he is examining. It’s a pleasure to read, re-read, and just look at.
— Amy Herman (TED Talk: A lesson on looking)

When your fantasy summer vacation is a trip into a sci-fi world

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
If the desert island you’re on happens to be more Lord of the Flies than Lord Howe Island, Parable is one of the best books possible to both acclimate yourself to your new struggle for survival and provide a narrative for how, even in a dystopia, one can rebuild civilization and lead a path to the stars. In the mid-2020s, when society has effectively collapsed due to climate change and ineffective social governance, a young woman from Southern California is forced to go on a dangerous journey to the Pacific Northwest to try to find safety. Through her many shocking and harrowing trials, she remains driven and inspired by a future where humanity can still find a way to leave the Earth and build a new home in the stars despite its flaws and failures. Together with its sequel, Parable of the Talents, it is arguably the greatest story ever told about the power of spaceflight that features no spaceships.
— Alex MacDonald (TED Talk: How centuries of sci-fi sparked spaceflight)

Wild Seed by Octavia Butler
This short novel tells an epic story that takes place over thousands of years. It explores questions of identity, gender, race and power, while at the same time asking questions about relationships in a very personal and sometimes disturbing way. Not light reading, but well worth it.
— Shohini Ghose (TED Talk: Quantum computing explained in 10 minutes)

Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang
Many will know Ted through Arrival, the 2016 film adapted from one of the short stories in his prior book, Stories of Your Life And Others. Chiang does the hard work — creating genuinely surprising ways of thinking — and he explores them through his great stories.
— Matt Beane (TED Talk: How do we learn to work with intelligent machines?)

The Three Body Problem trilogy (The Three-Body Problem, The Dark Forest, and Death’s End) by Liu Cixin
This is the trilogy that brought contemporary Chinese science fiction to global prominence. It’s simultaneously a history of earth’s future after Chinese scientists make first contact with aliens, a theory about the (brutal) geopolitics of the universe, a 21st-century update to Asimov’s Foundation series, and a fascinating exploration of how differently Western and Eastern cultures see individuals and institutions and their respective roles in shaping history. No more teasers — read it, and enjoy this majestic ride through space and time.
— Romain Lacombe (TED talk: A personal air-quality tracker that lets you know what you’re breathing)

The Native Star and the other books in the Veneficas Americana series by M.K. Hobson
I’m not a cli-fi fan. As a climate scientist, I find reality to be bad enough, thank you, without reading apocalyptic books about what will happen if we don’t get our act together soon. For my summer reading, I prefer books that have nothing to do with what I study but once in a while one of them sneaks up on me. That’s what the Veneficas Americana series did. It takes a few books to figure out what’s going on, but when Earth reveals herself and her plan of vengeance, the connection to climate change and the environmental degradation that we humans have inflicted on her is clear. Watch out!
— Katharine Hayhoe (TED Talk: The most important thing you can do to fight climate change? Talk about it)

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemison
This is the first book in a Hugo award-winning trilogy that takes place on an earth-like planet with significant geologic activity (think earthquakes, volcanoes, etc.) that occur at random and create the title’s “fifth season” — a nuclear winter. The whole society is structured around surviving these fifth seasons. In this world, there are people who can sense and control the planet’s activity, and they are feared, shunned and used by society for their powers. This book describes an incredibly detailed world that makes a commentary on how our own society uses and abuses people who are different. It’s an easy, engrossing and super profound read; I could not put it down.
— Erika Hamden (TED Talk: What it takes to launch a telescope)

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin
I had not read Le Guin until I read how much influence she had on Luis Alberto Urrea, another of my favorite writers. In this sci-fi novel, she explores the fascinating complexity of a planet on which most inhabitants switch back and forth between male and female. As a transgender woman in the liminal space between genders, I was moved by how well the author understood my experience. But I do not believe it is my gender identity that returns me to her rich narrative — it is how well she captures the human experience by telling the story from the perspective of the only human being on a very distant planet.
— Paula Stone Williams (TED Talk with Jonathan Williams: The story of a parent’s transition and a son’s redemption)

Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon
Beaches are great places for contemplating the immensity and vastness of both space and time, and few books are better aids for doing so than Last and First Men. It remains one of the most expansive science fiction narratives ever written, as it starts in the 1930s (when the book was written) and then proceeds to narrate a future history of humanity through 18 different human speciations across billions of years and the entire solar system. Arthur C. Clarke was inspired by it as a teenager and later declared, “No book before or since has ever had such an impact upon my imagination.” The characters in the book, though, aren’t so much people as they are entire civilizations, cultures and different types of future humans — so it’s best for a slow read with inspiring ocean and night-sky vistas mixed in for good measure.
— Alex MacDonald (TED Talk: How centuries of sci-fi sparked spaceflight)

The Murderbot Diaries novellas (All Systems Red, Artificial Condition, Rogue Protocol, and Exit Strategy) by Martha Wells
For the nerdy kid in me, these long-story/short-book diaries would make perfect reading under the palms on a desert island. Funny, smart, active and straightforward.
— Matt Beane (TED Talk: How do we learn to work with intelligent machines?)

When you’re ready to return to the classics you never got around to reading

The Complete Novels of Jane Austen by Jane Austen
A bit of a cheat here, going for the seven-book set, but how could you pick just one of her books to take with you? Here you get all of them — Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, Northanger Abbey, Persuasion, and Love and Friendship, the last of which will be new to me on my desert island. For me, no island would be complete without her wit, her irony, her delicious prose, and her magnetic (and repulsive!) characters.
— Jeanne Pinder (TED Talk: What if all US health care costs were transparent?)

The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio
This is a book I read over and over in both Chinese and English as I grew up. The stories are so varied, and they fascinated my young mind with all their irony, comedy, compassion, absurdity, and allegory. The Decameron is a book that will satisfy your desire for good stories and the endless possibilities of human drama. Also, the book starts with people trying to entertain each other while surviving so it’s perfect for reading on a desert island.
— Shunan Teng (TED-Ed Lessons: The history of tea, The Chinese myth of the immortal white snake, part I, and The Chinese myth of the immortal white snake, part II)

Middlemarch by George Eliot
The size of the book is daunting, but it is like a big, soft pillow on which you can’t wait to rest your head. The prose is spectacular, the characters are so well drawn, and it is so long and involved that you can pick it up and put it down for your entire stay on the desert island. It is my big summer read for when I am home — it is too big to travel — and I often think of the characters and their travails when I am not with them.
— Amy Herman (TED Talk: A lesson on looking)

I re-read Middlemarch every couple years, and it changes as I grow older. At this point in my life, I think it’s about the fragility of moral ambition, the attempt to do good, and the fear of running out of time. And it’s about marriage: how it thwarts, fails and surprises us, revealing the parts of ourselves that we wish to hide.
— Michelle Kuo (TED Talk: The healing power of reading)

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
I love Gatsby because it’s a fun read that illuminates the problem with the American Dream narrative while still being a love story at its core. I first read it in high school and absolutely fell in love with narrator Nick Carraway. The characters were worlds away from my life — and folks that looked like me — but the aspiration that it embodied was near and dear to my heart. I love the descriptions of the Jazz Age America and for years, I fantasized I was transformed into that glamorous, troubled world. I love period pieces, and this is just a classic. I’d read it over and over again.
— Reniqua Allen (TED Talk: The story we tell about millennials and who we leave out)

Narcissus and Goldmund by Hermann Hesse
This novel is about two friends: Narcissus (logos) and Goldmund (eros). The polarization of Narcissus’s individualist Apollonian character stands in contrast to the passionate and zealous disposition of Goldmund (which was influenced by Nietzsche’s theory of the Apollonian versus Dionysian). The book shows the attraction and need for the other character in our lives.
— Marjan van Aubel (TED Talk: The beautiful future of solar power)

The Odyssey by Homer, translated by Emily Wilson
Wilson’s translation has been called the first feminist translation of the Greek epic. I don’t have much to say about that, but her incredibly contemporary-sounding translation throws you deep into one of the world’s most amazing stories. There are monsters, magic and shipwrecks. But it’s really about fathers and sons and a young man coming of age. If you want to read one classic this summer, read this.
— Chiki Sarkar (TED Talk: How India’s smartphone revolution is needing to a new generation of writers)

In Search of Lost Time (A La Recherche du Temps Perdu) by Marcel Proust
This series of novels is a beautiful experiment in describing something indescribable: Memory. Time feels both bounded and limitless in Proust’s journey through art, science, love and death. The shell-shaped madeleine has been forever imprinted in my mind, and anything in my surroundings that resembles it infallibly triggers recollections of an earlier time.
— Alexis Gambis, TED Fellow

Moving, hallucinatory storytelling, beautiful character development, and a transformative reading experience. When you get done with the entire seven-volume cycle, you’ll want to start all over again. Use Scott Moncrieff’s acclaimed translation.
— Jeanne Pinder (TED Talk: What if all US health care costs were transparent?)

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Tolstoy creates a world where each character feels fully alive, flawed, familiar, and human. I especially cherish Levin, and his willingness to embrace love, even if it cannot rid him of his self-doubt and paralysis. An extraordinary book.
— Michelle Kuo (TED Talk: The healing power of reading)

When you’re wondering how our society got to where it is today

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
After finding myself embarking on a historical journey through the “in-justice” system, I read this book and questioned whether the people who commit crimes are actual criminals. Or is America creating environments where the enforcement of law is greater in certain communities? I reached the last page of the book knowing it was up to people like me to bring justice to the US legal system.
— Jarrell Daniels (TED Talk: What prosecutors and incarcerated people can learn from each other)

Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi
Kendi’s book is an incredibly comprehensive look at the history of racism in America. While I wouldn’t categorize it as light reading, it’s a necessary and important read for everyone.
— Liz Kleinrock (TED Talk: How to teach kids about taboo topics)

The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning by Jeremy Lent
This is a really readable but comprehensive interrogation of the assumptions underlying our society, how they developed, and how they can be questioned and changed. This is a journey to the origins of everything from economics to media, science to spirituality, told in a way that helps us recognize the patterns and provokes our motivation to do better.
— Douglas Rushkoff (TED Talk: How to be “Team Human” in the digital future)

People Get Ready: The Fight Against a Jobless Economy and a Citizenless Democracy by Robert McChesney and John Nichols
This is a wake-up call alerting us to the subtle threats to democracy. There are many books of this ilk out there right now; I found this one to be fluidly written and it really made me feel a “call to arms” on a number of fronts. The front I continue to come back to is that we as a society must prepare ourselves to embrace technology innovation, as opposed to just letting it deepen a digital divide.
— Nadjia Yousif (TED Talk: Why you should treat the tech you use at work like a colleague)

The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World by Charles C. Mann (TED Talk: How will we survive when the population hits 10 billion?)
This double biography of Norman Borlaug (Nobel Prize laureate and the father of the 20th-century agricultural revolution) and William Vogt (the inspiration behind the modern conservationist movement) is really a modern history of environmentalism and its philosophical origins. It’s a highly-informed narrative of how scientific, cultural and political ecology came to drastically opposed viewpoints on whether technology can save us or eventually bury us. A very timely read as we debate how to fight for our climate, clean air, and a cleaner planet. (Read an excerpt from the book here.)
— Romain Lacombe (TED talk: A personal air-quality tracker that lets you know what you’re breathing)

Kill all Normies: Online Culture Wars From 4Chan And Tumblr To Trump And The Alt-Right by Angela Nagle
I was surprised by this book. It illuminates the path from the fledgling internet subcultures of the 2010s to today’s mainstream activist movements on the extreme left and alt-right. Exploring the relationship between gender non-conformity and “Tumblr-liberalism” on one hand and revanchist white nationalism and transgressive 4-channers on the other, Normies is a crash course on the clash of online civilizations that will leave you smarter and more empathetic about the genesis of our current online — and offline — culture wars.
— Yasmin Green (TED Talk: How technology can fight extremism and online harassment)

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
At best, I disagree with Rand’s social and political philosophy. That being said, I’d still recommend this book as it has a captivating storyline with a strong female heroine and provides a unique insight into libertarian and conservative economic thought about the role played by industry and capital.
— Muhammed Idris (TED Talk: What refugees need to start new lives)

An American Sickness: How Healthcare Became Big Business and How You Can Take it Back by Elisabeth Rosenthal
This book is a must read for anyone who has anything to do with the US healthcare system — as a patient, provider, taxpayer, onlooker, employee or anything else. Rosenthal lays it all out for you in simple and colorful prose, with many examples and explanations.
— Jeanne Pinder (TED Talk: What if all US health care costs were transparent?)

Transgender History: The Roots of Today’s Revolution by Susan Stryker
This is the primer on trans history in the United States. If you saw my talk and wanted to learn more, there is no better place to start.
— Samy Nour Younes (TED Talk: A short history of trans people’s long fight for equality)

Democracy May Not Exist, But We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone by Astra Taylor
I love this new book, because it helps us see that democracy is not really an attainable ideal. It’s always going to be riddled with ambiguities and compromises. Once we accept that we’ll never get to perfect, we’ll start enacting democracy a whole lot better.
— Douglas Rushkoff (TED Talk: How to be “Team Human” in the digital future)

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power by Shoshanna Zuboff
Zuboff has always been ahead of her time, thinks very carefully about work and technology, and works very hard to keep her thinking grounded to the facts on the ground. But the only way I’d get through this whole book is to have the luxury of being trapped on a desert island.
— Matt Beane (TED Talk: How do we learn to work with intelligent machines?)

When you aspire to change our society — and the world — for the better

Gender: Your Guide, A Gender-Friendly Primer On What to Know, What to Say, and What to Do in the New Gender Culture by Lee Airton
Although many good books by trans people are available — including those by Laverne Cox, Caitlyn Jenner and Chaz Bono — this guide is a must-have for everyone, not only those who are trans, gender non-conforming or non-binary, or who have someone trans in their life. Airton speaks to a larger challenge in the culture: what they call “gender unfriendliness.” (Airton, who identifies as non-binary, uses “they” as a preferred pronoun.) What I like most about how the author writes is how they combine their knowledge about gender, language and identity with a warm and caring tone. I feel like Airton is both my smartest and best friend on this subject matter. And for anyone who finds themselves confused by the new acronyms and categories of sexual identity, the glossary alone is worth the price of this book.
— Steven Petrow (TED Talk: 3 ways to practice civility)

Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good by adrienne maree brown
I’ve been rereading this book since its publication in March. How could I not? It’s the only one that has ever encouraged orgasming before, during and after reading it. Also, brown brings us into intimate conversation with all the pleasure activists who have supported and uplifted her while bringing their own healing- and pleasure-focused magic into the world.
— Gabby Rivera (TED Talk: The story of Marvel’s first queer Latina superhero)

The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias by Dolly Chugh (TED Talk: How to let go of being a “good” person and become a better person)
This is such a thought-provoking read for all of us, given the societal issues today. It argues that we might be better off by not striving to be perfect when it comes to the hot-button topics today but by being good-ish. (Read an excerpt from the book here.)
— Chieh Huang (TED Talk: Confessions of a recovering micromanager)

Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming edited by Paul Hawken
How can we fix a huge, overwhelming problem like climate change? Drawdown highlights 100 surprising solutions, from regenerative agriculture and reducing food waste to bioplastics and the education of women and girls. This book will leave you surprised, encouraged, and most important of all, hopeful that together we can achieve a better future for all.
— Katharine Hayhoe (TED Talk: The most important thing you can do to fight climate change? Talk about it)

AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley and the New World Order by Kai-Fu Lee (TED Talk: How AI can save our humanity)
AI Superpowers penetrates the hype and hysteria around the so-called “AI arms race” and offers a blueprint for how humans and AI can coexist in a world in which technological innovation upends our lives and livelihoods. As a pioneer in artificial intelligence in both the U.S. and China, Kai-Fu Lee’s uniquely credible perspective in this book gives me pause… and hope.
— Yasmin Green (TED Talk: How technology can fight extremism and online harassment)

Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform by John Pfaff
Mass incarceration is a social injustice against people of color in America, but the way it has been defined and understood requires thoughtful examination. Pfaff points to current indicators of what has led to the high frequency of minorities accounting for a majority of the prison population. In a page-turning sequence, I was provided with a descriptive outline of what measures are needed in order to reduce the number of people detained or incarcerated in the US today.
— Jarrell Daniels (TED Talk: What prosecutors and incarcerated people can learn from each other)

Practical Ethics by Peter Singer (TED Talk: The why and how of effective altruism)
This is a great book for someone who wants to consider how they could live a more ethical life or better understand some issues in applied ethics. It’s an extremely well argued, compelling book addressing topics relevant to all of us. You don’t have to agree with everything he writes in order to find it thought-provoking and worth the read. In terms of books that changed my life, this one is right up there.
— Sabine Doebel (TED Talk: How your brain’s executive function works)

When books are your favorite way to meet real people and learn about their lives

Real Queer America: LGBT Stories from Red States by Samantha Allen
I think a lot of LGBT narratives center around communities in major metropolitan areas like NYC, DC, LA or San Francisco, while the Midwest and South are generally dismissed or derided for being too “backwards” for LGBT people to live. It’s an elitist mindset that overlooks the lived experiences of LGBT communities there and the activists who are fighting uphill battles. The author, herself a transgender woman, went on a road trip through red states to profile LGBT communities and capture their stories.
— Samy Nour Younes (TED Talk: A short history of trans people’s long fight for equality)

I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown
Brown tells her story of growing up as an African American in white middle America. This is a story about white middle-class Christianity and its power to perpetuate privilege and racial hostility.
— Jonathan Williams (TED Talk with Paula Stone Williams: The story of a parent’s transition and a son’s redemption)

Becoming Ms Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women by Susan Burton and Cari Lynn

and

Notes from a Young Black Chef: A Memoir by Kwame Onwuachi and Joshua David Stein

These are both books that I have bought after having seen them on display at my neighborhood independent bookstore. They both tell stories that need to be heard — about the way black people are disadvantaged by the structures of American society, as well as by systems and by individuals. These memoirs are bracing to those of us privileged to have been protected by our ethnicity or our relative affluence. In the end, however, they are deeply inspiring stories from two individuals who were almost destroyed by the disadvantages piled onto them by society but who managed to rise up and then work to help others rise too.
— Eugenia Cheng (TED Talk: An unexpected tool for understanding abstract math)

How to Fall in Love with Anyone: A Memoir in Essays by Mandy Len Catron (TED Talk: A better way to talk about love)
This beautiful, engaging memoir convinced me that the stories we hear (and tell ourselves) about love can constrain our experiences and expectations in ways that we often overlook. In one of my favorite essays, the author describes her boyfriend Kevin (“one of those mercurial people whose attention feels like sunlight, something you don’t know you’ve been deprived of until it shines on you”) and concludes, “Maybe I accepted less than what I wanted — from Kevin and from love — because he offered enough to tell a good story.” In doing so, she puts into words some of my own vague, free-floating feelings about my past relationships in a way that has given me a new lens for understanding them.
— Elizabeth Dunn (TED Talk: Helping others makes us happier — but it matters how we do it)

A Mind Unraveled: A Memoir by Kurt Eichenwald
The opposite of its negative title, this book might better be called Unshaken. It’s a gripping, eye-opening, true story — about the author’s struggle with epilepsy — that I couldn’t put down and which left me feeling inspired and in awe. It could easily become a great movie. I think people who read it may become better members of our society, freeing their many neighbors who live in fear.
— Rosalind Picard (TED Talk: An AI smartwatch that detects seizures)

Crushed, Book One: A Graphic Memoir by Trinidad Escobar
Lush. Ferocious. Crushed ripped me wide open. It’s a biomythography of epic proportions, unflinching in its portrayal of Nicole’s journey to the Philippines and all the trauma she must reckon with and heal from along the way. Escobar isn’t playing any games. Prepare to be wrecked and reborn.
— Gabby Rivera (TED Talk: The story of Marvel’s first queer Latina superhero)

Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood by Alexandra Fuller
This book is serious and comedic all at once. I love reading it. I appreciate Fuller’s passion and love for Africa, despite some of the drama she had to endure in her family and as a poor. white African. It is a well-written, genuine account of a time and places in Africa that are not often discussed.
— Juliet Brophy (TED Talk: How a new species of ancestors is changing our theory of human evolution)

Rise: A Photo Documentary of Hip-Hop in Australia by Michelle Grace Hunder
This is a beautiful collection of photos documenting the underground Australian hip-hop scene at a time when it was still raw and flourishing. It shows such a broad spectrum of talents and people from every corner of the country. It is filled with memories for me, and I think if there was a photo album full of my friends in my possession whilst I was stranded, it would probably provide a pretty good photographic reference point when I sculpted my new friends out of coconut husks.
— Tom Thum (TED Talk: The orchestra in my mouth)

Unplanned: The Dramatic True Story of a Former Planned Parenthood Leader’s Eye-Opening Journey across the Life Line by Abby Johnson with Cindy Lambert
The abortion debate is part of regular public conversation, and it’s important that people get educated about both sides. It’s hard to find somebody who can speak respectfully and articulately to both perspectives, and Johnson is that person. She was a highly-respected director at Planned Parenthood who ran a busy abortion clinic, and she “crossed the fence” and taken actions that closed down her own clinic. Her story, which was made into a movie with the same name as the book, is riveting. Wherever you stand on this issue, you can learn something from her story. .
— Rosalind Picard (TED Talk: An AI smartwatch that detects seizures)

Reading with Patrick by Michelle Kuo (TED Talk: The healing power of reading)
Reading is a welcome departure from the usual savior narrative which so often permeates books about teachers working in underserved communities. Kuo is brutally and refreshingly honest about herself in this memoir about her time teaching in Helena, Arkansas. Her relationship and her work with student Patrick Browning is at the center of the story, which weaves together Patrick’s story with historical, literary, economic and sociological perspectives — these keep it from being just a story about a dedicated teacher and inspiring student. The many layers of this book make it perfect for multiple readings on a desert island.
— Dolly Chugh (TED Talk: How to let go of being a “good” person and become a better person)

Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon
This book is so beautifully human and truthful and vulnerable and Black. It’s a perfect piece of writing — gut wrenching but necessary and also loving and bold in ways that we all need.
— Tarana Burke (TED Talk: Me Too is a movement, not a moment)

Becoming by Michelle Obama
This book tells the story that we oftentimes do not hear — we see successful people but never hear how they got there. This memoir explores Obama’s highs and the lows, allowing every human being to know that hard work and perseverance do pay off and that on the road to success one should always be evolving and becoming one’s authentic self through life lessons that build character.
— Olympia della Flora (TED Talk: Creative ways to get kids to thrive in school)

Amateur: A True Story About What Makes a Man by Thomas Page McBee
I’m a huge fan of this author’s, so honestly, I’d recommend anything he does (he also wrote for the new Tales of the City series on Netflix). There are a lot of trans memoirs out there, and all are valid and powerful. What really draws me to Amateur is that it provides such a raw and honest look at one trans man’s exploration and understanding of masculinity. It goes to some very dark places, and I say, Good for that because it needs to. We need to look at the ways we impose violence on boys, how we insist that they embrace violence, and how we can move forward with a healthier version of masculinity.
— Samy Nour Younes (TED Talk: A short history of trans people’s long fight for equality)

The Elephant Chaser’s Daughter by Shilpa Raj
This story traces the trajectory of a woman’s courage and dignity. Raj was born amidst poverty in rural Karnataka in southwest India, and in this poignant memoir, she narrates the appalling reality of female infanticide, the power of education, and familial differences. Told with intimacy and honesty, this book leaves an impact that is hard to put into words. Many days after putting it down, you’ll still be able to hear the footsteps of elephants, the songs of village children, and the sounds of Raj’s resilience in the face of challenges.
— Deepak Ramola (TED Talk: Everyone has a life lesson to share)

On the Move: A Life by Oliver Sacks (TED Talk: What hallucination reveals about our minds)
Each book ever written by neurologist Sacks deserves to be on this list, and On the Move is his autobiography that was published shortly before his passing in 2015. While in the final stages of terminal cancer, Sacks wrote in a New York Times essay: “Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts”. This book offers this beautiful, scenic, almost surreal landscape of the interconnected existence of one of the most important minds of our times — the young lad with a passion for weightlifting and motorcycles and also the 75-year old man, lying in bed, keeping a notebook of all his feelings, devoted to “falling in love”. This book, like Sacks himself, is a lesson in compassion, curiosity, genius and humanity.
— Yana Buhrer Tavanier (TED Talk: How to recover from activism burnout)

On Christopher Street: Transgender Stories, Photographs by Mark Seliger
These gorgeous black-and-white portraits by Mark Seliger, accompanied by a forward from Janet Mock and personal stories from the book’s subjects, act as a time capsule for a version of Christopher Street that is quickly and quietly fading. Several dear friends and fellow activists are also profiled here; it’s the ultimate queer coffee table book.
— Samy Nour Younes (TED Talk: A short history of trans people’s long fight for equality)

Assata: An Autobiography by Assata Shakur
Assata reads so much like a novel that I can’t believe it’s actually a real story. I love her commitment to the cause, her struggle for the liberation of black folk, her painful descriptions of those working against it (and, sometimes, for it), and the path of resistance she chose. I’ve read this memoir many times and taught it to college students, and I still open it whenever I need to find some motivation and hope. I’m from New Jersey where she remains a touchy subject for many, and when my mother told me she was once stopped on the highway by police officers looking for Assata, it hit me just how close to home this story was. I feel connected to the story as a black woman, and it’s one I will never forget.
— Reniqua Allen (TED Talk: The story we tell about millennials and who we leave out)

And when you’re just searching for a really great rutabaga recipe:

How to Cook Everything Vegetarian by Mark Bittman
This thing is a tome, but it’s really an essential cookbook and a great one if you’re looking for new veggie recipes for summer. It’s the kind of book you can open with a single ingredient in mind that you’d like to use but aren’t sure how (rutabaga?), or if you are looking for new ideas for how to make something familiar (veggie burgers!). Just check the index, and you will easily find 10 outstanding recipes that fit what you were looking for. Recipes are tried and true and basic, without a bunch of superfluous ingredients and steps. It’s also really well organized.
— Sabine Doebel (TED Talk: How your brain’s executive function works)