TED Bookstore Curated List

The eight guest curators at the TED Bookstore

The eight guest curators at the TED Bookstore

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the folks at TED asked me to be one of eight “guest curators” of the TED bookstore. I put together a list of thematically-related books, and the books–along with my short descriptions of them–were featured on the bookshelves of the onsite bookstore. Here is my list of ten books, along with my “curation philosophy:”

Electricity and Water: Who says they don’t mix?

Throw in a dash of technology, engineering or science, and end up with a galvanising read.

Over the past few years, I’ve been reading and lecturing about the invention of modern science in nineteenth century Britain. Water—the power it generates, as well as the challenges it poses to an island nation—and electricity played crucial roles in England’s rise to scientific and imperial dominance in this period. On my bookshelf now are ten books—fiction and non-fiction—in which water, electricity, or both are central to the tales they tell.


1. Waterland, Graham Swift
Takes place in the Fen country of East Anglia, in bleak marshlands wrested from the sea—a sea that wants the land back. Spanning 240 years, the book weaves a tale of empire-building, sluice-minding, eel reproduction, brewing, incest and madness, adding up to a thoughtful reflection of the nature of history and memory. Both history and memory, like the sea, are fluid and ever-changing. A magical book.

2. Remarkable Creatures, Tracy Chevalier
On the shores of the beaches of Lyme-Regis, a young woman named Mary Anning distinguished herself in the early 19th century as a talented fossil-hunter, discovering the first complete skeletons of the ichthyosaurus and plesiosaur. Her discoveries cast doubt on the prevailing views about the age of the earth, helping to make Darwin’s theory of evolution possible. Chevalier does a fine job of fleshing out the lives of Anning and her main champion, Elizabeth Philpot (real people about whom we know little) and setting their story in the context of science and discovery in the nineteenth century.

3. Electricity, Victoria Glendinning
Glendinning illuminates an age in which people read Darwin by day and attended séances at night, as the new science and technology began to replace the old in Victorian England. The young Charlotte Mortimer escapes her sinister father by marrying a young engineer for whom electricity is both a profession and a religion. At first her savior, electricity becomes a danger to Charlotte when she meets a man whose house her husband is electrifying, and is drawn like a moth to the flame.

4. City of Light, Lauren Belfer
It’s 1901 in Buffalo, New York. The enormous power plant at nearby Niagara Falls is transforming the city and the country. Electrified streets and booming industry have made Buffalo a model city, poised to host the Pan-American Exposition. Belfer weaves a beautifully imagined tale of secrets, intrigue, and murder into the fabric of a time when electricity, and its creation, is becoming a polarizing reality.

5. All The Water in The World, George Ella Lyon and Katherine Tillotson.
A lyrical celebration of the water cycle and the preciousness of this natural resource. In verse with gorgeous illustrations. A book for children, but one we all can enjoy.


1. The Victorian Internet, Tom Standage
Standage narrates the invention of the electrical telegraph, casting it as society’s first “internet;” like today’s texting and e-mailing generation, the developers and early users of the telegraph rhapsodized about how the new technology obliterated distances and would, eventually, shrink the world. Standage introduces us to a fascinating cast of characters, including Samuel Morse, Thomas Edison, and Charles Wheatstone, and makes us feel what one poet of the day described as the “thrill electric.”

2. Thunderstruck, Erik Larson
Larson tells the gripping true story of two men, Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of a new means of wireless communication, and Hawley Crippen, a man entangled in his own sordid tale of love and murder. In 1910, while Marconi raced against the odds to perfect the wireless telegraph, Crippen rushed across the Atlantic in one of the new enormous ocean liners, trying to evade justice for the murder of his wife. These narratives come together when Crippen becomes the first criminal to be—as newspapers around the world put it—“hanged by wireless.”

3. The Great Bridge, David McCullough
One of the greatest writers of historical non-fiction tackles the amazing story of the effort to build completely new kind of bridge spanning the East River between Manhattan and Brooklyn. John Augustus Roebling, his son Washington Roebling, and Washington’s wife Emily Warren Roebling persevered through fourteen years of one setback after another, finally succeeded in constructing one of the greatest engineering feats of all time. This book is a grand narrative of the place and time, bringing to life New York in the last decades of the nineteenth century.

4. The Ghost Map, Steven Johnson
Water kills: so John Snow discovered in 1854, as one of the most deadly outbreaks of cholera seized London. Johnson crafts this history of science, public health and city planning as a detective story, following Snow as he zeros in on the source of the contamination: a public water pump. By realizing that cholera was a water-borne illness, rather than a scourge spread by the “miasma” (air) of impoverished living conditions, Snow singlehandedly created the science of epidemiology and the impetus for building sewers in cities like London, where human and animal waste had previously been tossed into the Thames River—the source of the city’s drinking water.

5. Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and A Vast Ocean of a Million Stories, Simon Winchester
Yes, a book about the whole ocean. A consummate storyteller, Winchester takes us on a whirlwind tour of the ocean’s history, from its geological origins to the age of exploration, through World War II sea battles to today’s struggles to save the oceans. Although at times the facts and anecdotes can be a little overwhelming (not for nothing is the subtitle “A Million Stories”), the book is not only entertaining, but also provides useful reading for understanding our planet, and recognizing the importance of waters rapidly changing by pollution, overfishing and climate change.

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