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The magic of books: Lisa Bu at TED2013

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TED’s own Lisa Bu takes the TED2013 stage now to tell a very personal tale of a journey through literature that began, well, with a shattered dream. Growing up in Hunan, China, in the 1970s, Bu’s parents (yes, she had a Tiger Mother) believed there was only one sure way to happiness: a safe and well-paid job; no matter whether she actually liked it or not. She, in contrast, dreamed of making a career as a Chinese opera singer. But no adults would take her seriously, and when she reached the age of 15, she knew that she was too old to be trained. Her dream was not to be. “I was afraid that for the rest of my life, second-class happiness would be the best I could hope for,” she says. “But that was so unfair! I was determined to find another calling.”

With no one around to teach her, she turned to books, and what follows is her fresh take on some old favorites, including what she took from titles such as Jane Eyre, Cheaper by the Dozen, and Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth, a book banned in China she was only able to read after she moved to the US in 1995. “The Bible,” she comments, “is interesting, but strange.” A big laugh here — “that’s a topic for a different day,” she adds wryly.

Moving to a new culture, Bu developed a new habit: Comparative reading, a standard practice in academia that she took to with alacrity. She read books in pairs, to understand the same tale from different perspectives. She read books written by friends such as Katharine Graham and Warren Buffett to compare shared experiences. She read books on different religions. She read books in different languages–finding herself not lost but found in translation.

“Books have given me a magic portal to connect with people of the past and the present,” says Bu. “I know I shall never feel lonely or powerless again. Having your dream shattered is nothing compared to what many others have suffered. I have come to believe that coming true is not the only purpose of a dream. Its most important purpose is to get us in touch with where dreams come from, where passion comes from, where happiness comes from. Even a shattered dream can do that for you.”

It is because of books, she concludes, that she is on the TED stage today. “I live happy, with purpose and clarity (most of the time). May books be always with you,” she says, to applause from many more than just her TED colleagues.

Here are the books only available in Mandarin:

Correspondence in the Family of Fou Lei 傅雷家书

Complete Works of Sanmao 三毛全集

Lessons from History 历史的经验,by Nan Huaijin 南怀瑾

Lisa Bu’s talk is now available for viewing. Watch it here»