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10 Best Literary TED Talks of the Year

Nikki VanRy

Contributing Editor

Nikki VanRy is a proud resident of Arizona, where she gets to indulge her love of tacos, desert storms, and tank tops. She also writes for the Tucson Festival of Books, loves anything sci-fi/fantasy/historical, drinks too much chai, and will spend all day in bed reading thankyouverymuch. Follow her on Instagram @nikki.vanry.

Every year on Book Riot we’ve put together a round-up of our favorite literary TED talks. Since our last post, there have been ten that deserve mention, ranging from inspirational stories about sight and connection to really random dog poems from Billy Collins and erotic fantasies from Isabel Allende. Because it’s TED. Zany is bound to happen.

Isabel Allende: How to live passionately–no matter your age


What I love about this one is that Allende doesn’t talk specifically about her novels, but so much of the stuff that makes up her novels–passion, lust for life–is covered in this talk. She also talks about her sexual fantasies about Antonio Banderas, which is almost kind of literary.

Mac Barnett: Why a good book is a secret door 


Barnett, children’s book author and founder of the Echo Park Time Travel Mart, encourages creators to allow the magic of a story out into the real world, especially for child readers. (It also features the cutest phone message to a blue whale ever.)

Lisa Bu: How books can open your mind 


When Bu left China for the U.S. (and subsequently her dream to be a Chinese opera singer), she found that she could find truth and meaning for her life in books. It’s a fascinating look at cross-cultural, comparative reading.

Stephen Burt: Why people need poetry 


If you’re one to sigh over beats and the muddled truth about life that poetry presents, definitely watch this exuberant, love letter to poetry from literary critic, Stephen Burt.

Matthew Carter: My life in typefaces


Likewise, if you geek out over the simplistic majesty of Helvetica or have long-winded discussions about the cultural legacy of Gotham, you’ll find much to love in this crazy-technical talk. Carter, a long-time typeface designer who designed Verdana and Georgia, discusses technical limitations, freedoms, and revolutions during his years in the industry.

Billy Collins: Two poems about what dogs think (probably) 


As noted earlier, this is a strange one. As a dog lover and fan of Collins’ previous works, I’m still not sure how much I enjoyed these poems, but they’re certainly interesting.

Anne Curzan: What makes a word “real”? 


A language historian and member of the American Heritage Dictionaries Usage Panel, Curzan argues that language is a fluid, changing thing that should be enjoyed rather than sanctified. And she also totally supports the use of the word “hangry.”

Jamila Lyiscott: 3 ways to speak English 


In this weaving, fast-paced spoken word essay, “Broken English,” Lyiscott talks about what it means to speak “articulately” at home, with friends, and as an academic. It takes a look at the cultural assumptions inherent in word choice/rhythm/tone and why Lyiscott now considers herself a “tri-tongued orator.”

Bob Mankoff: Anatomy of a New Yorker cartoon


Another one for the geeks–comics geeks that is! The New Yorker cartoon editor, Mankoff, dissects exactly how he defines The New Yorker humor and its place in our current culture.

Ron McCallum: How technology allowed me to read


In what is perhaps the most earnest and inspirational talk on this list, McCallum discusses the way reading has changed for the blind since the 1950s. It will make you want to hug your books–and your laptops too.

What are your favorite literary TED talks? 


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