40 Books to Enjoy this Summer: The TED Reading List

Looking for your next great read? We've got a few (dozen) suggestions for you.

Whether your weeks ahead contain travel, vacations or just longer and lazier days than usual, our list of recommendations from TED speakers has books for all moods, activities and tastes.

When you want to understand why we humans do what we do

1Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely (TED Talk: Our buggy moral code)

Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioral economics, reveals through many studies why we so often behave in a way that totally contradicts logic. While reading it, I had to smile many times because I could see myself behaving exactly like the studies’ subjects. After reading Irrational, you may be a bit more gentler with your own and others’ irrationality. You will also know why getting something for free does feel so good.
— Hannah Bürckstümmer (TED Talk: A printable, flexible, organic solar cell)

2. How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett (TED Talk: You aren’t at the mercy of your emotions – your brain creates them)

I had the pleasure of meeting the author at a TED event where we both spoke. Her book clarifies and, ultimately, debunks many myths about our emotions and how our brains creates them. It’s an interesting and thought-provoking read, and I found it to be engaging and fascinating. I strongly recommend it to anyone who thinks they can “read” people just by looking at them. (You can read an excerpt from her book here.)
— Simone Bianco (TED Talk with Tom Zimmerman: The wonderful world of life in a drop of water)

3. Astonish Yourself: 101 Experiments in the Philosophy of Everyday Life by Roger-Pol Droit

Droit is a great French philosopher, and I was so glad when the English-language version of this book came out. I always keep a few copies of it at home to offer as gifts to good friends. It contains very simple experiments to discover the subconscious and unexpected processes in your brain, and it’s great inspiration for those of us who build technologies and create new kinds of experiences.
— Rebecca Kleinberger (TED Talk: Why you don’t like the sound of your own voice)

4. Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness by Richard Thaler

This book really added another perspective for me. It explained why we all make – quite often – unwise choices due to a lack of information. Not to spoil the punchline, but I found it very interesting that the cause of making bad decisions can be found within ourselves.
— Matthias Müllenbeck (TED Talk: What if we paid doctors to keep people healthy?)

When you want to sink your teeth into some fiction

5. Another Country by James Baldwin

At WITNESS.org, we collaborate closely with communities who are using video to tell the story of systemic racism. Baldwin’s novel is set in the fifties, but it compellingly describes what the videos we see today are showing us.
— Yvette Alberdingk Thijm (TED Talk: The power of citizen video to create undeniable truths)

6. A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley

Rarely is a debut collection lauded as an instant classic and justifiably so. With heart and humanity, Man explores the emotional lives of black men and boys. Brinkley’s prose is poetic and lush, and each story is a rich world unto itself. Just as the Caribbean celebration J’ouvert heralds the breaking of a new dawn, this book signals the arrival of a unique and necessary voice in fiction.
— Felice Belle (TED Talk with Jennifer Murphy: How we became sisters)

7. Sophie’s Misfortunes by La Comtesse de Ségur

I re-read this children’s book once every two or three years because it is such a great piece of French literature. It is both very accessible and still very deep, and this 19th-century classic has a special place in the history of children books.
— Rebecca Kleinberger (TED Talk: Why you don’t like the sound of your own voice)

8. A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

I was in the record business for many years, and I’ve tried writing about it but found it impossible to describe. Egan does it perfectly here, and this book is about so much, much more – deliciously, intriguingly, beguilingly so.
— Daniel Levitin (TED Talk: How to stay calm when you know you’ll be stressed)

9. Vengeance by Zachary Lazar

This contemplative, precise, mesmerizing novel is a smash-up of fiction and nonfiction. The author fuses the genres to ruminate on our constructs of crime and punishment, yielding lines like this: “Most people in prison are there not for the public’s safety but out of vengeance, or hatred, or because if they were let out we would have to help them.” Lazar is a truthteller.
— Eve Abrams (TED Talk: The human stories behind mass incarceration)

10. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez

The incredibly fantastic magical realism that Márquez weaves throughout this book is so eerily and uncannily African in some ways. It made me rethink and see anew some aspects of African life.
— Iké Udé (TED Talk: The radical beauty of Africa, in portraits)

11. Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

I’m sure I’m not the only one to put this book on the top of a summer reading list, but I’d be remiss not to name it. It was a pure guilty pleasure and my definition of a great summer read. The characters, the storyline and mystery – even if you have seen the equally wonderful HBO adaptation – make this book nearly impossible to put down. It’s escapism at its best.
— Wendy Troxel (TED Talk: Why school should start later for teens)

12. What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty

I’ve always loved Moriarty’s novels – you may have seen HBO’s Big Little Lies – and this one is no exception. I don’t always hold myself to deadlines when reading – I frequently join book clubs and end up reading the cliff notes at the last minute – but I was taken from the opening lines and couldn’t stop thinking about the page-turning storyline.
— Mindy Scheier (TED Talk: How adaptive clothing empowers people with disabilities)

13. Charcoal Joe by Walter Mosley

This mystery, which is part of the Easy Rawlins series, focuses on art, friendship and storytelling. I love the mysteries explored here and what the book says about life and relationships.
— Deborah Willis (TED Talk with Hank Willis Thomas: A mother and son united by love and art)

14. The Overstory by Richard Powers

I never wanted this book to end. Trees, trees and more trees form the centerpiece of this breathlessly beautiful, evocative novel that swept me from character to character and limb to limb. Gorgeous.
— Eve Abrams (TED Talk: The human stories behind mass incarceration)

15. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

This is a hilarious and poignant telling of the story of the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son, narrated by the ghosts who haunt the graveyard where he was entombed. It was a fascinating read, and it really stayed with me – in a good way.
— Karen Lloyd (TED Talk: This deep-sea mystery is changing our understanding of life)

16. Late Fame by Arthur Schnitzler

This book, which was rescued from obscurity through a wonderful new translation, is a funny, tragic novella on the corrupting influence of sudden and unexpected fame.
— Daniel Susskind (TED Talk: 3 myths about the future of work and why they’re not true)

17. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

The voice of the narrator is clear as a bell and persuasive to the hilt. The events in this young adult novel could have been stolen right from the headlines, but it’s told from a perspective that I’m unaccustomed to find in a novel: a young African-American high-schooler. This book is just as good as all the reviewers have said – believe the hype.
— Eve Abrams (TED Talk: The human stories behind mass incarceration)

When your brain longs for a break from texts and DMs and craves poetry instead

18. Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay

This is easily one of the best books of poetry in the last decade – and certainly one of the most beautiful collections ever. Whatever the disease of the heart or soul, this is the remedy. Here’s one line: “I want so badly to rub the sponge of gratitude over every last thing, including you, which, yes, awkward…”
— Drew Philp (TED Talk: My $500 house in Detroit and the neighbors who helped me rebuilt it)

19. The Prophet by Khalil Gibran

The Prophet is a book of 26 prose poetry fables written in English by a Lebanese-American poet and writer. Originally published in 1923, it is Gibran’s best known work. It has been translated into most of the world’s languages, and I have read it cover to cover over one hundred times. It’s a must read.
— Azim Khamisa (TED Talk with Ples Felix: What comes after tragedy? Forgiveness)

20. salt. by Nayyirah Waheed

This is, hands down, one of my favorite books of poetry and one that I return to regularly for inspiration, solace and wisdom. Waheed’s unique style breaks many of the traditional rules of poetry, but she leverages her creative approach for maximum effect. Whether consisting of a single sentence or multiple pages, her poems tackle topics from love to race to feminism in ways that feel like they always touch me at my core.
— Liz Ogbu (TED Talk: What if gentrification was about healing communities instead of replacing them?)

When you’re with your family – but want to read about other people’s

21. Census by Jesse Ball 

I recently came across this captivating novel, and I couldn’t put it down. Filled with a beautiful but complex theme of familial love, it follows the story of a man and his son, who has Down syndrome, as they embark on a cross country road trip. If you’re looking for a novel that will truly resonate with you this summer, this one’s for you.
— Mindy Scheier (TED Talk: How adaptive clothing empowers people with disabilities)

22. Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

The author brilliantly stitches together pre-colonial and contemporary Uganda in this beautifully told story that covers three centuries and multiple generations of a single family. Kintu is surely one of the most ambitiously conceived and elegantly executed novels in this generation of African writing. It was also the winner of the inaugural Manuscript Prize from Kwani Trust, a pathbreaking publishing network that connects new African literary voices to long-starved audiences.
— Dayo Ogunyemi (TED Talk: Visions of Africa’s future, from Africa’s filmmakers)

23. Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

China is a country that no one can ignore. Today we know it as a nation that has emerged as a global economic superpower in a very short period of time and as a country that is redefining communism and some of the stereotypes that go with it. This novel takes us back seven to eight decades and walks us from there – via the turbulent history of the country – all the way to the present. It does so through the lives of a single family and their friends and acquaintances. This book is a mesmerizing peek into all that has made the country into the China that exists today.
— Seema Bansal (TED Talk: How to fix a broken education system without any money)

When you want to take an existential vacation in someone else’s life

24. Sometimes Brilliant: The Impossible Adventure of a Spiritual Seeker and Visionary Physician Who Helped Conquer the Worst Disease in History by Larry Brilliant (TED Talk: My wish – help me stop pandemics)

This is the fascinating personal story about Larry Brilliant, who went from being a hippie and spiritual seeker to doctor, and his remarkable account of playing a key role in the eradication of smallpox worldwide. As a polio survivor who advocates for the end to that disease, I am inspired by Brilliant’s contribution to that monumental achievement. Some of the lessons learned in his effort to end smallpox can and have been applied to the global push to stop polio.
— Minda Dentler (TED Talk: What I learned when I conquered the world’s toughest triathlon)

25. Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout by Laura Jane Grace (with Dan Ozzi)

Grace’s story is filled with sincere self-reflection, and its touching, candid honesty is often unseen in the ego-hungry world of rock and roll. Tranny is not only a truly epic rock memoir chronicling her excesses but it also rips open her uncertainty and the bittersweet existence of a rock star. It’s an endearing and honest glance into the world of gender dysphoria, love, loss, success and failure – one that will kick you in the crotch and pull at your heart.
— Christian Picciolini (TED Talk: My descent into America’s neo-Nazi movement — and how I got out)

26. Lovesong: Becoming a Jew by Julius Lester

Lester so beautifully describes his experience growing up in a devout southern Christian family during the Civil Rights era before he decided to convert to Judaism. I instantly loved this book, and I was so inspired by the way he demystifies his conversion while honoring the complicated relationship among his racial, religious and cultural backgrounds as well as his journey into his chosen faith.
— Malika Whitley (TED Talk: How arts help homeless youth heal and build)

27. Eunice: The Kennedy Who Changed the World by Eileen McNamara

This book is a nuanced and candid biography of a distinguished member of the Kennedy family. From her impassioned advocacy for the mentally disabled to her role in creating the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, Eunice attests to the formidable spirit and altruistic personality of a remarkable woman.
— Zachary Wood (TED Talk: Why it’s worth listening to the people you disagree with)

28. The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying by Nina Riggs

This is a story about the last year in the life of a 39-year-old mother of two young children. Despite that description, it’s a joyful book and at times really funny. It also enabled me to see my own life through clearer eyes.
— Karen Lloyd (TED Talk: This deep-sea mystery is changing our understanding of life)

When you can’t get enough of math, science or art

29. Galileo, Courtier: The Practice of Science in the Culture of Absolutism by Mario Biagioli

The way we learn about scientific practitioners and progress often depicts them as pure epistemological actors, moving the boundaries of human understanding forward independent of political and sociological forces and concerns. This is not – and has never been – the way that science actually happens. Galileo explores this complexity in the context of the scientist’s life and work, putting the production of scientific knowledge of the past and the present in a new, more nuanced light.
— Dustin Schroeder (TED Talk: How we look kilometers below the Antarctic ice sheet)

30. Magical Mathematics: The Mathematical Ideas That Animate Great Magic Tricks by Persi Diaconis and Ron Graham

This book is about the many connections between magic and mathematics, and you’ll learn about both subjects by reading it. Have you ever wondered how magicians’ card tricks work? This books reveals some of the underlying mathematics – for example, one section is about shuffling cards – with numerous step-by-step instructions for each trick. There is also a chapter about juggling.
— Roger Antonsen (TED Talk: Math is the hidden secret to understanding the world)

31. Quantum Entanglement for Babies by Chris Ferrie

This book is a wonderfully simple, visual explanation of one of the most complex and counterintuitive scientific ideas of our time. It’s fun for little ones but equally delightful for non-babies.
— Vikram Sharma (TED Talk: How quantum physics can make encryption stronger)

32. 3-D Geometric Origami: Modular Polyhedra by Rona Gurkewitz and Bennett Arnstein

You can teach yourself how to fold beautiful mathematical structures with this amazing do-it-yourself book. Modular origami is the art of creating simple units from single sheets of paper so that the units fit together into larger structures. This book contains step-by-step instructions and clear diagrams and serves as a nice introduction to this type of origami.
— Roger Antonsen (TED Talk: Math is the hidden secret to understanding the world)

33. A Mathematician’s Apology by G. H. Hardy

This is the best book I know about the sheer beauty of mathematics. Here’s one lovely quote from the book: “A mathematician, like a painter or a poet, is a maker of patterns. If his patterns are more permanent than theirs, it is because they are made with ideas.” Apart from the “his” – I say yes, indeed!
— David Brenner (TED Talk: A new weapon in the fight against superbugs)

34. The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking (TED Talk: Questioning the universe) and Leonard Mlodinow

This book beautifully weaves stories of the greatest philosophers and scientific thinkers into a compelling narrative about some of the universe’s biggest unanswered questions. It’s very readable and accessible.
— Vikram Sharma (TED Talk: How quantum physics can make encryption stronger)

35. The Stones of Venice by John Ruskin

This book was perhaps my first profound introduction to Venice. I love the way Ruskin illuminated Venetian art and architecture in its variegated forms.
— Iké Udé (TED Talk: The radical beauty of Africa, in portraits)

36. Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics by Ruth Lewin Sime

Lise Meitner was the co-discoverer of nuclear fission but – surprise surprise – while co-discovers Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann received the Nobel Prize, she did not. But what is so gripping is the story of how a Jewish woman scientist working in Berlin until the late 1930s managed to contribute so much to our knowledge of how the world works. It’s another reminder of how much we lose, even today, because women in science too often still face an uphill struggle.
— David Brenner (TED Talk: A new weapon in the fight against superbugs)

When you want to check out from reality and dive into sci-fi and fantasy

37. Player of Games by Iain M. Banks

A classic from one of the true masters of the science fiction genre. This book, which is part of a 10-book series, really messes with your head, and you need a book to do that to you every so often. — Ian Bremmer (TED Talk: How the US should use its superpower status)

38. American Gods by Neil Gaiman

This is a dark, highly inventive, very fun, very funny and exhilarating story. I loved how it bridged some of my favorite genres – fantasy, historical fiction and mystery. It describes how the world ends up on the verge of an apocalyptic war between gods from the Old World and gods from the New World, and it’s up to a single man to save the planet. The writing is so good that it stayed vivid in my mind long after I finished it.
— Simone Bianco (TED Talk with Tom Zimmerman: The wonderful world of life in a drop of water)

39. The Fire’s Stone by Tanya Huff

The Stone, which is pacifying the volcano threatening a city in Ischia, has been stolen. By chance, a thief named Aaron, a young prince called Darvish, and his unwilling bride-to-be Chandra are the only ones with a real chance to retrieve this object. It was a pleasure to accompany these three young people on their adventure and watch them grow into mature and likable characters.
— Hannah Bürckstümmer (TED Talk: A printable, flexible, organic solar cell)

40. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

I’m in the middle of reading this book, and while it’s not a new work, it feels more relevant than ever. Le Guin paints a world where gender doesn’t exist – there’s no binaries and no continuum. At a time when issues of inclusivity are at the forefront, this novel approaches them in ways that are both engaging and inquisitive.
— Raphael Arar (TED Talk: How we can teach computers to make sense of our emotions)

Portions of TED’s summer reading list were republished with permission. To read the entire list, go to ideas.ted.com.

Rebekah Barnett is the community speaker coordinator at TED and knows a good flag when she sees one.

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