6 TED Talks on the Power of Books, Learning & Fiction

I’ve written about TED Talks a few times here on the blog, but surprisingly I’ve never discussed my favourite talks on books, learning and reading fiction. I’ve come to realise there are a fair few available (although there’s certainly room for more), but here are a select few of my favourites.

I do hope you find watching them as insightful as I have, and that I’ve introduced you to at least one or two new ideas, speakers or books.

1. Ben Dunlap: The life-long learner

In one of the most emotional TED Talks I’ve seen, Wofford College president Ben Dunlap tells the story of Sandor Teszler, a Hungarian Holocaust survivor who taught him about passionate living and lifelong learning. From opera to Harry Potter, this is a wonderful story of reaching out to all the art and learning available to us, and believing that humans are ‘fundamentally good’.

I realized, in this moment of revelation, that what these two men were revealing was the secret of their extraordinary success, each in his own right. And it lay precisely in that insatiable curiosity, that irrepressible desire to know, no matter what the subject, no matter what the cost, even at a time when the keepers of the Doomsday Clock are willing to bet even money that the human race won’t be aroundto imagine anything in the year 2100, a scant 93 years from now.

…It is this inextinguishable, undaunted appetite for learning and experience, no matter how risible, no matter how esoteric, no matter how seditious it might seem.

Ben Dunlap TED talk on lifelong learning
Wofford College president Ben Dunlap on lifelong learning,  Harry Potter and great friendships. Image source

2. Elif Shafak: The politics of fiction

I love this TED Talk largely because I share so many ideas with the speaker. Elif Shafak believes that listening to stories widens the imagination, allows us to surpass cultural walls, and helps us to embrace different and unfamiliar experiences and feelings. 

Fiction, says Elif, is the ideal tool to overcome identity politics.

In the end, stories move like whirling dervishes, drawing circles beyond circles. They connect all humanity, regardless of identity politics, and that is the good news.

Elif Shafak on fiction, books and reading
Elif Shafak, a believer in the universal qualities and multicultural benefits of fiction.  Image source.

3. Lisa Bu: How books can open your mind

I talked about Lisa Bu’s wonderful TED Talk on how books can open our minds in a separate post, although I do think it deserves to be mentioned again here.

I was afraid that for the rest of my life some second-class happiness would be the best I could hope for.

But that’s so unfair. So I was determined to find another calling. Nobody around to teach me? Fine. I turned to books.

Lisa Bu's TED talk on books and bibliotherapy
Lisa Bu’s testament to bibliotherapy, discussing how books can open the mind and transform our lives.

4. Ron McCallum: How technology allowed me to read

Months after he was born, in 1948, Ron McCallum became blind. In this charming, moving talk, Ron shows how he is able to read, and celebrates with us the progression of technology that make it all possible. 
With the help of technology and generous volunteers, he’s become a lawyer, an academic, and, most of all, a voracious reader.

I remember my mum reading a story to me and my two big brothers, and I remember putting up my hands to feel the page of the book, to feel the picture they were discussing.

And my mum said, “Darling, remember that you can’t see and you can’t feel the picture and you can’t feel the print on the page.”

And I thought to myself, “But that’s what I want to do. I love stories. I want to read.” Little did I know that I would be part of a technological revolution that would make that dream come true.

Ron McCallum's TED talks on books and reading
Ron McCallum, a wonderful man at the centre of the blind reading revolution.

5. Jean-Baptiste Michel and Erez Lieberman Aiden: What we learned from 5 million books

A fascinating representation of literary history on earth, Google Labs’ Ngram Viewer lets you search for words and ideas in a database of 5 million books from across centuries. Erez Lieberman Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel show us how it works in this TED Talk, alongside a few of the surprising things we can learn from 500 billion words.

What we’re left with is a collection of five million books, 500 billion words, a string of characters a thousand times longer than the human genome — a text which, when written out, would stretch from here to the Moon and back 10 times over — a veritable shard of our cultural genome.

Jean-Baptiste Michel's TED talk on Ngram Viewer
Jean-Baptiste Michel, discussing Google Labs’ Ngram Viewer and the power of books.

6. Chris Abani: Telling stories from Africa

Imprisoned three times by the Nigerian government, Chris Abani turned his experience into poems that Harold Pinter called “the most naked, harrowing expression of prison life and political torture imaginable.” His novels include GraceLand (2004) and The Virgin of Flames (2007). 

Chris tells us in this TED Talk that “what we know about how to be who we are” comes from stories, and explains how we can search for the heart of Africa through its poems and narrative.

If you want to know about Africa, read our literature — and not just ‘Things Fall Apart,’ because that would be like saying, ‘I’ve read ‘Gone with the Wind’ and so I know everything about America.’

Chris Abani's talk on reading about Africa

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It's good to meet you! I started Tolstoy Therapy back in 2012 to share my healing journey through anxiety and PTSD with books. I also climb mountains, go on solo adventures, and write over at livewildly.co.

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