Who doesn’t love a good TED Talk? They’re usually reasonably short, endlessly fascinating, and you always feel super smart and inspired afterward, or at least I do. There are TED Talks on pretty much any topic imaginable, but the ones I like watching the most are about (no surprise here) books, literature, and language. Here are a few of my favorites.
1. “My Year Reading a Book from Every Country in the World” –Ann Morgan
A few years ago, I embarked upon a Summer of Reading Dangerously, but this is seriously hardcore. In this talk, Ann Morgan recounts how one day she was looking at her bookshelves and realized that all her books were almost exclusively written by British and North American authors, most of whom were white.
She was not OK with this (nor should be anyone), so she decided to challenge herself to read one novel, short story collection, or poetry collection from every country in the world (as recognized by the United Nations, plus Taiwan).
Morgan soon realized what a daunting task it would be to find a book from 196 different countries that had been translated into English, so she turned to the internet for help. She started a blog and in her first entry, posted an appeal to the world for suggestions. Soon support and help from all corners of the globe came flooding in, and Morgan came to realize that her story was about so much more than just her personal project:
“It’s the story of the power books have to connect us across political, geographical, cultural, social, religious divides. It’s the tale of the potential human beings have to work together.”
2. “How Books Can Open Your Mind”–Lisa Bu
Lisa Bu’s childhood was shaped by the Chinese cultural revolution in the 1970s. When she came to the U.S. as a young adult, she delighted in reading many books that had been banned in China, including Jane Eyre and the Bible.
Her short-and-sweet talk is a celebration of the liberating and enlightening power of books. She describes how she likes to read books “in pairs” to compare ideas, and how being bilingual opens up opportunities for new connections between books, people, and cultures.
“Books have given me a magic portal to connect with people of the past and the present.”
3. “Designing Books Is No Laughing Matter. OK, It Is.”–Chip Kidd
Chip Kidd probably has the coolest job in the world. He designs book covers for the Knopf publishing company. He explains in his talk how a book designer’s job is to ask the question: “What do the stories look like?” The book cover is your first impression of the book, so it has to be a good one.
With laugh-out-loud humor, Kidd tells several stories about the inspiration and idea development behind a few of his famous book cover designs, including Katharine Hepburn’s memoir Me and Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84. His story about how he designed the cover for Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park will make you both marvel at the genius of it and cackle at your computer screen.
As much as I love my Kindle, he also makes a good point about ebooks: the art of the book cover is lost in electronic format, which is one reason why ink-and-paper books will never really go away.
“A book cover is a distillation. It is a haiku, if you will, of the story.”
4. “The Danger of a Single Story”–Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche
Celebrated Nigerian novelist Adiche delivers this powerful and inspiring talk about the vitality of representation in literature. She tells of when she began writing stories as a child, when the only stories she had read were about British and American children, so the children she wrote about looked and acted and talked like white British or American children.
But when she discovered African literature, her whole world opened up: ”I learned that girls like me, whose skin was the color of chocolate… could also exist in literature.”
Ultimately, Adiche’s story is about not relying on a “single story,” but reading many stories to enrich and expand our views, and ensure that every child can see that people who look like them can exist in literature.
“Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”
5. “Adventures in Twitter Fiction”–Andrew Fitzgerald
TwitFic? Or TwitLit? Either way, it’s a thing. Fitzgerald’s talk explores the fascinating ways people have used Twitter as a storytelling tool, format, and publishing platform.
He starts with a comparison to the days of radio–a brand new medium in the 1930s that quickly transformed the way people consumed stories. Then he gives the examples of the New Yorker Fiction Twitter account “broadcasting” a fragment of a Jennifer Egan short story every evening, 140 characters at a time, and a story by Elliott Holt called “Evidence,” told from multiple characters’ perspectives, through multiple Twitter accounts, and many more examples of fanfiction, history, and current events storytelling, all using Twitter.
It’s exciting to think that new formats and platforms can help people distribute their stories more widely, and fascinating that those very platforms can become part of the story.
“A new medium defines new formats, which then define new stories.”
Word Nerd Bonus: “The Joy of Lexicography”–Erin McKean
Did I say Chip Kidd had the coolest job in the world? I’ve changed my mind. Erin McKean actually has the coolest job in the world. As she delights in telling the audience, McKean is a lexicographer. You guys, she gets paid to find and study new words and basically just be an expert on dictionaries.
In her talk she gives a brief and entertaining look at the history of the dictionary in the English language, noting the many limitations of dictionaries in book-form. She argues that for our language to continue to grow and thrive, we need to look beyond what will fit on printed pages to define what words and language mean to us.
“Being in the dictionary is an artificial distinction. It doesn’t make a word more real than any other way. If you love a word it becomes real.”