We humans

What should you read this summer? A mega reading list

Jul 20, 2016

40+ TED speakers recommend the books you need to read right now.

OK, so it’s not summer everywhere right now. But whatever the weather, it’s always time to read a good book. So we compiled summer reading recommendations from TED speakers, and then organized them according to the various situations in which you might find yourself now or throughout the year. Whether that’s on the beach, on a long-haul flight, or even if you just need an excuse to ignore everyone, here are the books for you.


When you’re by the beach

What a Fish Knows by Jonathan Balcombe
“Our fishy ancestors emerged from the watery depths around 400 million years ago, and this beautiful book connects us back to that time. Balcombe fishes out an eclectic array of studies that show we’re much more similar to fish than meets the eye. Showing that fish share predilections to music types, have dysfunctional family interactions and can be finicky gourmands, this books channels the goldfish in each and every one of us.” — David Gruber (TED Talk: Glow-in-the-dark sharks and other stunning sea creatures)

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
“This is the book I’ve read in the past 18 months that I’ve enjoyed the most, and it’s best summed up by saying that if you enjoyed Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Matrix and you want to see one story that delivers on both of those kinds of fun at the same time, this is the summer read for you!” — Astro Teller (TED Talk: The unexpected benefit of celebrating failure)

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson
“The quintessential celebration of summer in Scandinavia — 22 vignettes of a girl and a grandmother on an island. Jansson is known as the creator of Moomin, but this book is my quiet, curious and simple favorite.” — Linda Liukas (TED Talk: A delightful way to teach kids about computers)

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig
“Pirsig takes you on a wonderful adventure, trying to define the one elusive thing impossible to quantify with numbers: quality.” — Riccardo Sabatini (TED Talk: How to read the genome and build a human being)

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren
“Scientists rarely write beautifully, but Dr. Jahren does exactly that in this memoir. She takes us through her childhood and reminds us how one can fall in love with science and nature and turn it into a successful and fulfilling career.” — Prosanta Chakrabarty (TED Talk: Clues to prehistoric times, found in blind cavefish)

Born to Run by Christopher McDougall
“A great adventure woven with fascinating details about running and the human ability to achieve far more than we can possibly imagine. You won’t be able to put it down.” — Jill Heinerth (TED Talk: The mysterious world of underwater caves)

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
“An amazing and very accessible story about a woman with cancer, her family, and the cells from her cancer that have revolutionized aspects of biological research and our understanding of cancer. This story also raises important issues about the importance of informed consent, research ethics and the ‘business’ of clinical medicine and medical research. Beautifully written, and a story that continues to play out.” — Russ Altman (TED Talk: What really happens when you mix medications?)

inGenius by Tina Seelig
“This wonderful book shows how EVERYONE is creative. Through examples from her own work, others in the design thinking field and history, Tina Seelig provides a wealth of tools and techniques to help everyone uncover their creative potential.” — Elise Roy (TED Talk: When we design for disability, we all benefit)

River-Horse by William Least Heat-Moon
“This race against time, and winter weather, is an attempt to travel across the country in a relatively fragile 25-foot outboard-powered boat navigating almost entirely on America’s rivers. The bonus, beyond pure adventure tale, is a unique window into America’s diversity and extraordinary multiplicity of cultures.” — Stephen Petranek (TED Talk: Your kids might live on Mars. Here’s how they’ll survive)


When you’re on a staycation

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
“Bill Bryson’s book is an eloquent refresher on humanity’s simultaneous significance and smallness. A Short History of Nearly Everything helps place humans in the context of both time and space in the universe, and Bryson compiles great evidence on the unpredictability of planetary events that leads to the demise of ‘successful’ species such as ours. To me, the book makes a compelling case for why we must continue to explore both on Earth and the space beyond.” — Lisa Nip (TED Talk: How humans could evolve to survive in space)

Dreams of a Final Theory by Steven Weinberg
“A concise, inspiring account of the most ambitious intellectual project in science — the search for an ultimate description of the laws of nature. Written by one of the most influential physicists of the 20th century, this brilliant (and at times controversial) book reveals the beauty found in a world governed by symmetry and physical law, and it argues that the long-sought final theory may be within our reach.” — Harry Cliff (TED Talk: Have we reached the end of physics?)

Belle du Seigneur by Albert Cohen
“I don’t hesitate, even if it’s an old book. Belle du Seigneur is not only the story of an exalted passion but also a satiric analysis of humankind.” — Jocelyne Bloch (TED Talk: The brain may be able to repair itself — with help)

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
The Goldfinch is a magnificent story of redemption. As a boy, Theo Decker absorbs the evil of the world when he is an innocent victim of a terrorist attack that kills his mother. He steals a painting and becomes an addict and antiques forger. But in the end, he resurrects the good that still lives in him from childhood, righting the wrongs of his life and resurrecting his decency and humanity.” — Eric Haseltine

The Idea Factory by Jon Gertner
“This book details the rise and decline of what is arguably the finest research and development lab that the world has ever seen, the Bell Labs, under the supervision of Mervin Kelly, who is little known today but certainly the greatest of all the organizers of industrial research in the 20th century. Woven in are the stories of intellectual giants such as Claude Shannon (whose centennial is this year), a large collection of Nobel Prizes and an amazing list of technological breakthroughs, dwarfing the accomplishments of any of the modern giant companies. Above all, it is a testimony of an era of big innovation done by a meritocracy which was driven by curiosity and duty rather than money or fame. An amazing, eye-opening book on the history of science and technology and innovation, unique in its kind.” — Cédric Villani (TED Talk: What’s so sexy about math?)

On Photography by Susan Sontag
“In this moment when we are all photographers, it’s important to know the power of this media and to take responsibility for the images that we consume, create and share. This delightful read reflects on what photography is, especially the short selection of quotes that closes this book.” — Angélica Dass (TED Talk: The beauty of human skin in every color)

Some of Us Did NOT Die by June Jordan
“This book of essays, poetry and original work from the late June Jordan spans a wide variety of topics, but all of them are thought-provoking and encouraging. The title, Some of Us Did NOT Die, along with many of the pieces, reminds us of the power of doing the work while we’re still on the planet. I come back to it often when I want to commune with brilliance.” — Jedidah Isler (TED Talk: The untapped genius that could change science for the better)

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
“On the content: it’s about the first human mission to an alien planet, led by Jesuits. On the effect: when I closed the cover on this novel, I wandered around my house in a daze, despairing that I could ever write anything as good. I’m still not fully recovered.” — Monica Byrne (TED Talk: A sci-fi vision of love from a 318-year-old hologram)

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
“Although it can be tedious at times, I love it when you find those gems of wisdom, and they make all the effort worth it. It’s also been really fun finding people who have read it not once but three times! I found myself starting a book club just from meeting people passionate about David Foster Wallace’s work.” — Magda Sayeg (TED Talk: How yarn bombing grew into a worldwide movement)


When you’re on a long-haul flight (or two)

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough
“A perfect summer read. McCullough’s genius is in the way he brings history to life. The extraordinary story of the Wright brothers, their life, work ethic and relentless will to innovate makes this a powerful and inspiring read. It captures our world in a unique moment in history, where globally we’re more interested in innovation, not war.” — Stephen Wilkes (TED Talk: The passing of time, caught in a single photo)

Good to Great by Jim Collins
“This book is full of extraordinary insights into how to manage an organization based on rigorous research. I also love the intercalated stories that help bring home points, like the Admiral Stockdale Paradox, a concept I have lived by both in my work and own life.” — Pardis Sabeti (TED Talk: How we’ll fight the next deadly virus)

The Big Idea by Donny Deutsch
“This book will always hold a very dear place in my heart because it was given to me in 2009 by my younger sister, who is now of blessed memory. The book was to encourage me in my entrepreneurial journey, as I switched from a corporate career in the US into the unknown world of starting and running an enterprise in Nigeria. It’s filled with stories of entrepreneurs saying ‘There’s got to be a better way of doing this,’ asking, ‘How can I provide an innovative solution to this problem?’ and forging ahead to change the world with their ideas. A must read for anyone who is thinking about taking the entrepreneurship route.” — Achenyo Idachaba (TED Talk: How I turned a deadly plant into a thriving business)

Improv Wisdom by Patricia Ryan Madson
“We all could use a lesson on how to have fun in business and in life. Madson does a wonderful job providing strategies on how to deal with life’s many challenging situations by drawing from the maxims of improvisational theater.” — Lisa Dyson (TED Talk: A forgotten Space Age technology could change how we grow food)

Supplement to the Italian Dictionary by Bruno Munari
“How could you do all of the following without uttering a word? Issue an invitation. Ask for the check. Say no. Convey happiness, sorrow or fury. Congratulate someone. Threaten them. Tell them to call you, to come closer, to step aside or that you love them. The brilliant mid-20th-century Italian designer and design theorist Bruno Munari showed how to express all of those things without speaking through hand gestures, facial expressions and attitudes of the body in his 1963 Supplement to the Italian Dictionary. His book is an inspired and engaging analysis not only of improvisational design but of the Italian psyche.” — Alice Rawsthorn (TED Talk: Pirates, nurses and other rebel designers)


When you want to challenge yourself

Moby Dick by Herman Melville
“My all-time favorite book. It may seem like a strange choice for a conservationist, but life is not simple, clean-cut or straightforward — something I think Moby Dick does an exceptional job illustrating. Vivid descriptions make it a detailed, 165-year-old time machine, transporting me to a different world, curiously full of familiar issues and themes that are just as relevant today, such as idealism vs. reality, human nature, spirituality, God’s existence, racism, bigotry and even conservation, to name a few. It’s a journey about finding ourselves internally as we face external struggles, and that is something I deeply relate to.” — Andrés Ruzo (TED Talk: The boiling river of the Amazon)

The Vital Question by Nick Lane
“A brilliant exposition of very recent science (including the author’s own) on the origins of life, especially multicellular life and how universal eukaryotic properties like sex and death arise from this origin story. Like Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene or Jared Diamond’s books, The Vital Question takes a fresh and insight-generating perspective on old and profound questions. Instead of focusing on genetics, reproduction and information transfer, Lane focuses on the fundamental problem of how life harnesses energy sources, and he argues convincingly that energetics are life’s key limiting factor.” — Blaise Agüera y Arcas (TED Talk: How computers are learning to be creative)

Spiral by Mark Danner
“This compelling, critical and powerful book looks at the ways in which terror groups have goaded America and other Western nations into a state of perpetual war, and why our military responses further strengthen their hand. Spiral is a searing exposé of the ‘war on terror,’ backed by rigorous research and laid out in page-turning prose. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in why, despite our advanced arsenals and record-breaking military spending since September 11th, we aren’t any safer.” — Samantha Nutt (TED Talk: The real harm of the global arms trade)

Joseph and His Brothers by Thomas Mann (translation by John Woods)
“The book is as epic in its scope as its size. And it is huge — a big and beautiful meditation on time and the interchangeability of human lives. In the great biblical story of Joseph, Mann sees us all.” — Joshua Prager (TED Talk: Wisdom from great writers on every year of life)

Evicted by Matthew Desmond
“One of the most compelling and heart-wrenching looks at poverty in America, seen through the lens of the transient poor who are constantly shuffled in and out of rental apartments through a neverending series of exploitations, abuses and gross abuses. A must-read this year, including all the footnotes.” — Michael Murphy, architect and TED2016 speaker

Made to Hear by Laura Mauldin
“Not exactly a light topic for summer reading, but this is one of the most comprehensive books on cochlear implants (CI). It involves voices such as mothers of kids with CIs and linguistic/cultural rights advocates, covers the relationship with technology and corporations, and discusses the place of Deaf culture in the medical system. Considering how deeply controversial and complicated CI is, Mauldin manages to present all parties involved with sensitivity and consideration. Her writing is easy to read, especially for people who aren’t familiar with this topic.” — Christine Sun Kim (TED Talk: The enchanting music of sign language)

My Promised Land by Ari Shavit
“I grabbed this book as I was heading off for a work-related visit to Israel. It provided great insight into the culture of the country and the reasons why its problems are so difficult to resolve. An interesting and worthwhile read, even if you don’t have an excuse to visit the country.” — David Sedlak (TED Talk: 4 ways we can avoid a catastrophic drought)

The Last Hunger Season by Roger Thurow
“Most of the world’s poor people are rural farmers, yet they are largely forgotten in the public dialogue. This book does a wonderful job of telling the human story of four farmers, and also effectively uses it to illustrate much broader themes in global food policy and human development policy. We need more books that act as a bridge between the human experience of the people that we purport to serve, together with the high-level policy changes that we can pursue as a human society to achieve a better world.” — Andrew Youn (TED Talk: 3 reasons why we can win the fight against poverty)


When you need help ignoring everyone

Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn
“Learning to be ‘present’ in your life and to appreciate every single moment is certainly a wonderful skill to have. Being mindful has made such a difference in my life — most significantly in adapting and accepting the acute discomfort that I live with as a double amputee. Practicing mindfulness has enabled me to include pain into my positive idea of what it means to ‘feel’ life — the full spectrum of what it means to be alive!” — Gill Hicks (TED Talk: I survived a terrorist attack. Here’s what I learned)

Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson
“It’s an owner’s manual for the ego. And it’s evidence-based.” — Adam Grant (TED Talk: The surprising habits of original thinkers)

The Most Human Human by Brian Christian
“This is the story of Brian Christian’s participation in an annual Turing Test competition, where computers chat to humans, vying for the title of ‘Most Human Computer.’ Christian was one of the human chat partners, eager to win the title of Most Human Human and defend the honor of humanity against the seemingly unstoppable progress of the computers. Along the way, we learn how computers imitate humans, what challenges them and how they’re improving. But more important, we learn that computers can often imitate humans simply because so much human conversation is formulaic and lazy. The book challenges us — and helps to teach us — to have real, meaningful conversations with our fellow humans. A wonderful, warm and wise book.” — Tim Harford (TED Talk: How frustration can make us more creative)

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Station Eleven is post-apocalyptic genre meets high-minded literary fiction, and I really couldn’t put it down. I love the feeling you get with some books — that feeling like I have to devour this book instead of sleep! Can I take this book into the shower? It’s not often that I feel that way, and this book had it.” — Negin Farsad (TED Talk: A highly scientific taxonomy of haters)

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
“Kahneman shares what he has learned in decades of research — a wonderful, clear and simple analysis of our embedded self-delusions and the ‘dual-process’ model of our brains.” — Tom Hulme (TED Talk: What can we learn from shortcuts?)


When you don’t have time for a 500-page book

An Orchard Invisible by Jonathan Silvertown
An Orchard Invisible has rave reviews and not so subtly points out the importance of sex in plants to provide seeds for our food and other needs. As one of the comments in Times Higher Education states: ‘Read it as a gardener, scientist, food aficionado, historian, botanist or naturalist and you will not be disappointed.’” — Jill Farrant (TED Talk: How we can make crops survive without water)

The End of Power by Moisés Naím
“This book pushed me to think about how quickly and dramatically the traditional sources of power are changing and what this means about leading today. In very persuasive ways, Naím makes the case for the decay of traditional power and proposes potential opportunities. Reading this book pushed me to consider how I can best tap into new sources of power to accelerate our equity agenda most effectively.” — Sue Desmond-Hellmann (TED Talk: A smarter, more precise way to think about public health)

Deschooling Society by Ivan Illich
“This book set off a cultural firestorm when it was published 50 years ago. It has largely been forgotten or only selectively absorbed. The prose is polemical and spare, the considerable learning is worn lightly, and though written about compulsory schooling, it will illuminate the state of higher education in America today. I recommend it highly for those who still read books with pencil in hand.” — Sajay Samuel (TED Talk: How college loans exploit students for profit)

The Sense of Wonder by Rachel Carson
“This short, beautiful memoir by the famous author of Silent Spring (a groundbreaking warning about the costs of chemical pollution) came out half a century ago. It chronicles Carson’s beach walks with her nephew and her unfolding understanding of the power of a child’s wonder and surprise at nature. An inspiring read for those who would like to share nature’s pleasures with a child — and rediscover their own sense of wonder.” — Emma Marris (TED Talk: Nature is everywhere — we just need to learn to see it)

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
“This is a powerful read that evokes action in us all and provides a well-researched historical account of race relations in the US. Coates’ writing is excellent, and he describes how understanding starts with communication — not assumption. This book will open your eyes and increase your empathy.” — Shivani Siroya (TED Talk: A smart loan for people with no credit history (yet))

Proxies by Brian Blanchfield
“In this book of essays, Blanchfield backs away from books, from Wikipedia, from the internet and asks himself, ‘What do I know?’ He writes about foot washing, chatroulette, hide-and-seek and mothers, among many other topics. His writing weaves erudition and sharp analysis with autobiography, poetry and humor. This book, more than anything, is an examination of an alternative method of knowledge production — ‘How do I come to know something?’ — one that takes accuracy and inaccuracy, memory and misremembering, shame and truth and misdirection all as equally valid points of departure.” — Oscar Schwartz (TED Talk: Can a computer write poetry?)

Mapping the Heavens by Priyamvada Natarajan
“Space is big, and so are our questions about how it works.” — Tabetha Boyajian (TED Talk: The most mysterious star in the universe)

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
The Things They Carried is about war through the eyes of one reluctant soldier. I love it because the writing cuts straight to the bone, teems with specificity, and the author challenges traditional notions of courage and patriotism. The book left me forever changed.” — Aomawa Shields (TED Talk: How we’ll find life on other planets)

Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull
“Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull takes readers inside how the animation factory makes their sausage. This book is one of the most intimate looks behind the scenes of a company’s culture, and the impact it has on the people, business and product. I highly recommend it for anyone who thinks deeply about improving the culture of their organization.” — Joe Gebbia (TED Talk: How Airbnb designs for trust)

An Affair With My Mother by Caitriona Palmer
“This is a nonfiction memoir about one woman’s story of secretly connecting with her birth mother and maintaining a relationship. I found the author’s perspective easy to relate to, and the story made me think about the power of shame and the way one simple piece of information can change a life forever.” — Sarah Gray (TED Talk: How my son’s short life made a lasting difference)

Doing Good Better by William MacAskill
“Effective Altruism is one of the most important new social movements, and this book is a great introduction to it. The author is a philosopher from Oxford who explains how a lot of our intuitions about how to help the world are misguided, and how we can make a bigger difference in the world with some simple shifts in our behavior.” — Julia Galef (TED Talk: Why you think you’re right — even if you’re wrong)

Space and Eternal Life by Chandra Wickramasinghe and Daisaku Ikeda
“This book is a conversation with renowned astrobiologist Chandra Wickramasinghe (who studied under the mentorship of Dr. Fred Hoyle, who evidenced that the basic building blocks of life as we know it on Earth exist everywhere in the universe). It’s very scientific and humanistic, and it’s written in a way that helps readers understand high-level science as well as its connection to real life without the need for an academic preparation. If you read this book, you will believe from your core that all life forms are wonderful.” — Wanda Diaz Merced (TED Talk: How a blind astronomer found a way to hear the stars)