How Books can Expand our Mind

Translating meaning
Lisa Bu was born and raised in Hunan, China. Before joining TED in 2011, she spent seven years as a talk show producer and a digital media content director at Wisconsin Public Radio.

She's also a computer programmer, with a PhD in journalism and an MBA in information systems from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, as well as a BA in Chinese from Nanjing University in China.

After coming to the U.S. it was a word that helped her redefine her relationships with her parents — “honor” vs. the “obey” she knew in her culture.

Culture-driven maps

Bu believes we can read creatively and comparatively to uncover new horizons. In a brief talk describing how she let go of her first dream of becoming an opera singer and embraced a new way of learning, she says:

Encountering a new culture also started my habit of comparative reading. It offers many insights. For example, I found this map out of place at first because this is what Chinese students grew up with. It had never occurred to me, China doesn't have to be at the center of the world. A map actually carries somebody's view. Comparative reading actually is nothing new. It's a standard practice in the academic world. There are even research fields such as comparative religion and comparative literature.

Compare and contrast gives scholars a more complete understanding of a topic. So I thought, well, if comparative reading works for research, why not do it in daily life too? So I started reading books in pairs.


they can be about people — ["Benjamin Franklin" by Walter Isaacson]["John Adams" by David McCullough] — who are involved in the same event, or friends with shared experiences. ["Personal History" by Katharine Graham]["The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life," by Alice Schroeder]

I also compare the same stories in different genres — [Holy Bible: King James Version]["Lamb" by Christopher Moore] — or similar stories from different cultures, as Joseph Campbell did in his wonderful book.["The Power of Myth" by Joseph Campbell]

For example, both the Christ and the Buddha went through three temptations. For the Christ, the temptations are economic, political and spiritual. For the Buddha, they are all psychological: lust, fear and social duty — interesting.

Knowing another language creates an opportunity to compare and contrast based on cultural references. She says:

if you know a foreign language, it's also fun to read your favorite books in two languages. ["The Way of Chuang Tzu" Thomas Merton]["Tao: The Watercourse Way" Alan Watts] Instead of lost in translation, I found there is much to gain. For example, it's through translation that I realized "happiness" in Chinese literally means "fast joy." Huh! "Bride" in Chinese literally means "new mother." Uh-oh.

Watch the short video of her talk below.

Book suggestions from Lisa Bu include:

  • Personal History by Katharine Graham — the autobiography of Katharine Graham, former publisher of The Washington Post.
  • Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson — Franklin loved to travel. As postmaster, he saw more of America probably than any American of his era. His wanderlust did not stop on this side of the Atlantic. He also visited most of Europe. For that matter he lived most of the second half of his life in Europe.

  • Cheaper by the Dozen by Frank Gilbreth — a book about the Gilbreth family; Father, mother and twelve children. The father was a time and motion expert in the first couple of decades of the twentieth century, traveling internationally and showing the new factories how to improve their production by increasing their efficiency. They all learned to speak foreign languages, touch typing, mental maths and even morse code. The book was written by two of his children, Frank and Ernestine.


[happiness equivalent, “frankly joyful”]

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