The 5 Best TED Talks About Books and Reading

When I’m not reading or writing about reading, I’m usually to be found scouring the internet for free resources so that I can learn more about reading. Breezing past the fact that I somehow still got a person to marry me, I refuse to accept that this isn’t exactly how it was intended that I spend the majority of my time. In an effort to spread the joy of all the best free learning resources on the big wide web and encourage you to have the most literary year possible, I wrote at the end of 2018 about my five favourite hosts for free online literature courses. Not only do these platforms prove how incredibly accessible university-level education (albeit in the form of short courses) is to all of us, the availability of such learning facilities is one of the most valuable parts of the internet. Although I’m sure that most teenage boys would disagree on this point.

One thing that hadn’t occurred to me when putting together my previous article, however, was the amount of time that I also spend watching TED talks. Although my typical TED-based video consumption usually trends toward the ‘I was once in a cult’ variety of talk, it was stumbling upon Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s fantastic talk ‘The danger of a single story’ that first turned me on to the incredible utility of TED for those of us wanting to learn more about literature and reading. There are an amazing number of videos on this theme – ranging from talks that consider specific novels, to broader examinations of reading habits. To get you started on you literary TED talks journey, I’ve put together a list of my five favourite presentations. Let me know what you think and, as always, feel free to add any of your own favourite recommendations in the comments!

1. The danger of a single story – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (19 mins)

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is certainly one of the most insightful and crucial literary voices to emerge out of the past two decades. Not only are her works critical to representing a reality of Nigeria that profoundly contradicts the one-dimensional narrative of African poverty and victimhood that we in the west are traditionally presented, Adichie has a vital understanding of the power of stories. In this TED talk, Adichie considers the dangers of a ‘single story’ – that singular narrative utilised as the foundation from which we form our conception of person, place, and experience. Single stories create stereotypes and, as Adichie explains, “…the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.” Reading widely and with a mind to allowing space for a broad, diverse, and often contradictory idea of cultures and lives is critical for a return to, what Adichie identifies as, a kind of “paradise.”

2. How books can open your mind – Lisa Bu (6 mins)

In this short talk, Lisa Bu describes how a shattered dream opened the door to turning her life around through literature. She describes the ways in which different works of fiction helped her to question the Confucian ideals instilled in her by her Chinese upbringing and how a move to the US encouraged her to engage with reading in a different way. Most interesting about this talk is Bu’s description of her approach of ‘comparative reading’ – reading books in pairs, with a view to gaining more profound insight and understanding of the works.

3. The politics of fiction – Elif Shafak (20 mins)

In this powerful talk, the author Elif Shafak discusses the ways in which fiction can transcend the restrictions of culturally-boundaried identity. She talks about the importance of working against the impulse of forcing authors into boxes of writing semi-biographical fiction and, therefore, against the traditional adage “write what you know.” Shafak suggests that exploring the boundaries of imagination and writing what we ‘feel’ is a far better approach. Although I don’t necessarily agree with all of her viewpoints and see authors writing “what they know” as vital to shifting stereotypes and the “single stories” mentioned by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Shafak’s perspective is an important one. She emphasises that no author should be constrained to writing simple depictions of their own biography and points to the hypocrisy exhibited in expectations of ‘multicultural’ authors versus the creative exploration afforded to western writers.

4. My year reading a book from every country in the world – Ann Morgan (12 mins)

Inspiring diversity in book choices is one of the goals that I’ve developed over the course of running The Book Habit. Although I wouldn’t even begin to suggest that my book picks are sufficiently global, I’ve spent a good chunk of the past year attempting to read more diversely by choosing books that speak to some of the gaps in representation that characterise publishing trends. I wrote a bit about this on Monday and have spent the past couple of days reflecting on how to give my reading habits an even more global reach. This is, in large part, inspired by Ann Morgan’s project – a year of reading a book from every country in the world. In this TED talk, Morgan discusses her decision to remedy the narrowness of her reading habits and the scale of the undertaking when she set out to read a book from every country over the course of a year. It’s an inspiring reflection on reading habits, the failure of western publishers to offer sufficient representation in translated works, and the ways that perspectives can shift as a result of globally-oriented reading. You can also find her list of books here.

5. The inspiring truth in fiction – Tomas Elemans (8 mins)

If I write any more about the importance of fiction to education in empathy and compassion (which I most assuredly will), I will probably need to make it the official motto of The Book Habit. I talk about this relationship because it is so incredibly central to how we read and what we should spend our time reading. This dynamic – between reading and empathy – is captured perfectly by Tomas Elemans’ talk on the compassionate truth that underlies our interaction with literary fiction. Elemans describes empathy as “the friendly enemy to our feeling of self-importance.” The antidote that fiction thus provides us in a world replete with narcissism and division is key to the role of novels as a tool to bridge divides – and it is this that Elemans considers in his excellent talk.

TED Talks

4 thoughts on “The 5 Best TED Talks About Books and Reading

    1. No problem! Let me know what you think when you get a chance to watch them. I’ve always loved TED talks for how short they are – I find a lot of random opportunities to squeeze them in. So hopefully you’ll be able to find some time too!


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