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10 Of Our Favorite Literary TED Talks From 2015

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.

We adore a good literary TED Talk around here on the Riot. 2015 gave us fascinating talks about poetry in prisons, book cover design, the StoryCorps project, the making of a bad feminist, and many more. Here are our 10 favorites.


Harry Baker: A love poem for lonely prime numbers


Math and poetry. An adorable poem about the love between 59 and 61. What could be better? (Keep on after the first poem for an overview of the joys of slam poetry and then “the best poem in the world”.)


Laura Boushnak: For these women, reading is a daring act


Through the women’s original words and her own stunning photography, Boushnak created the “I Read I Write” project about the power of education for Arabic women. All stories show the resistance spoken of by one of Boushnak’s subjects: “Question your convictions. Be who you to want to be, not who they want you to be. Don’t accept their enslavement, for your mother birthed you free.”


Brian Dettmer: Old books reborn as art


Dettmer is one of my favorite book artists. In this fascinating TED talk, he discusses the exact processes he uses to create his art. Of speaking of his work, he notes: “I think that the book will evolve, and just like people said painting would die when photography and printmaking became everyday materials, but what it really allowed painting to do was it allowed painting to quit its day job. It allowed painting to not have to have that everyday chore of telling the story, and painting became free and was allowed to tell its own story.”


Cristina Domenech: Poetry that frees the soul


Domenech gives an incredibly moving TED talk about the power of poetry and the transformative effects reading and writing it had on a group of Argentinian prisoners. Speaking of their poetry, she says, “And in that seventh circle of hell, our very own, beloved circle, they learned that they could make the walls invisible, that they could make the windows yell, and that we could hide inside the shadows.”


Roxane Gay: Confessions of a bad feminist


Roxane Gay is a Riot favorite, for good reason. If you haven’t read Bad Feminist yet, this TED talk should give you the push you need to get on it already. A fantastic presentation from Gay that encapsulates many of her ideas, such as “The feminist label was an accusation, it was an “F” word, and not a nice one,” and “I hold these truths to be self-evident, but let me be clear: I’m a mess. I am full of contradictions. There are many ways in which I’m doing feminism wrong.”


Dave Isay: Everyone around you has a story the world needs to hear


Like all of us, Isay realizes the importance of telling one’s story. In this TED Talk, he discusses why he started StoryCorps, an organization whose mission is to provide people from all backgrounds with the ability to tell their story and capture it. With over 100,000 interviews now, StoryCorps is the largest single collection of human voices ever gathered. For his work, Isay won the 2015 TED Prize. With it, he’s now developing a mobile app and other tools so people can record and archive other people’s stories.


Pico Iyer: The art of stillness


This TED Talk technically came out last November, but since it didn’t make my list last year, I had to include it here. Iyer talks eloquently about travel, happiness, work, the joys of solitude and stillness, and writing about those things.


Chip Kidd: The art of first impressions — in design and life


We loved Kidd’s first TED Talk about book design. In this newer TED Talk, Kidd goes into even more detail about he juggles clarity and mystery in his work on book covers and in real life. In it, he also discusses the decisions he made while designing books by Haruki Murakami, Mary Roach, and David Sedaris.


Erin McKean: Go ahead, make up new words!


YAS, fluidity of language! I’m all for this short, excited, passionate talk from a lexicographer about how words are created and why you should be daring enough to make up your own. As she says, “Words are great. We should have more of them. I want you to make as many new words as possible.”


Lee Mokobe: A powerful poem about what it feels like to be transgender


Mokobe’s stunning poem hooked me from the very beginning with the lines “The first time I uttered a prayer was in a glass-stained cathedral. / I was kneeling long after the congregation was on its feet, / dip both hands into holy water, / trace the trinity across my chest, / my tiny body drooping like a question mark / all over the wooden pew.”


What was your favorite literary TED Talk from 2015?