- REUTERS/Rick Wilking
Bill Gates loves to read.
Gates’ book recommendations have included historical accounts like Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo Da Vinci, poetic works of fiction like Maylis De Kerangal’s “The Heart,” and complex yet fascinating nonfiction works like Gretchen Bakke’s “The Grid,” which is all about our energy infrastructure.
Reading Gates’ top picks is guaranteed to make you smarter.
Although Labor Day may signal the start of fall to some people, there are still a few weeks of summer – the first day of autumn isn’t until September 22.
So it’s not too late to enlighten yourself with these 21 Gates-approved reads:
“Everything Happens for a Reason” by Kate Bowler
- Random House/Kate Bowler
Kate Bowler was diagnosed with an incurable form of colon cancer at the age of 35. In her book “Everything Happens for a Reason,” Bowler takes on her diagnosis with a surprising amount of humor, which clearly had an effect on Gates.
In a blog post published May 21, he wrote:
“When Bowler, a professor at Duke Divinity School, is diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer, she sets out to understand why it happened. Is it a test of her character? The result is a heartbreaking, surprisingly funny memoir about faith and coming to grips with your own mortality.”
“Leonardo Da Vinci” by Walter Isaacson
- Simon & Schuster
Gates called Leonardo da Vinci, the famous renaissance polymath, “one of the most fascinating people ever” in a blog post published in May.
That’s likely why Gates recommends Walter Isaacson’s painstakingly researched biography of da Vinci.
“Isaacson does the best job I’ve seen of pulling together the different strands of Leonardo’s life and explaining what made him so exceptional. A worthy follow-up to Isaacson’s great biographies of Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs.”
“Origin Story: A Big History of Everything” by David Christian
- Little, Brown and Company
Gates said in a May blog post that historian David Christian’s “Origin Story” will leave you with a “greater appreciation of humanity’s place in the universe.”
Christian teaches an online course based on the book, called Big History, which tells the story of the universe from the Big Bang through the modern era.
Gates said “Origin Story” pairs perfectly with the course as a “great refresher” of the material.
“Lincoln in the Bardo” by George Saunders
George Saunders’ most recent novel, “Lincoln in the Bardo,” made Gates “rethink” what he knew about President Abraham Lincoln.
“I got new insight into the way Lincoln must have been crushed by the weight of both grief and responsibility,” Gates wrote on his blog in May. “This is one of those fascinating, ambiguous books you’ll want to discuss with a friend when you’re done.”
The unique novel is structured as a conversation among hundreds of ghosts, including Lincoln’s deceased son.
“Factfulness” by Hans Rosling
A doctor and statistician by training, Rosling argues in his book “Factfulness” that people are collectively taking an overly emotional view of the world. Using statistics, Rosling, a global health expert, seeks to show how humanity is constantly improving based on birth rates, life expectancy, and the gender wage gap.
Gates wrote on his blog in May that he’s been recommending this book since “the day it came out.”
Rosling passed away last year. Gates said on his blog that the book is “a fitting final word from a brilliant man, and one of the best books I’ve ever read.”
“Hillbilly Elegy” by J.D. Vance
J.D. Vance’s book “Hillbilly Elegy” details his experience growing up in near-poverty in rural Ohio. Vance became a marine, went to Yale Law School, and now works as a venture capitalist. His memoir seeks to explain what life is like for the working poor and how that reality sheds light on the US’ political climate.
Gates wrote on his blog last year that Vance’s book “offers insights into some of the complex cultural and family issues behind poverty.”
He added that the “real magic lies in the story itself and Vance’s bravery in telling it.”
“A Full Life” by Jimmy Carter
President Jimmy Carter has written dozens of books. His memoir about growing up in the small town of Plains, Georgia is a quick and impressive read, Gates said.
“I loved reading about Carter’s improbable rise to the world’s highest office,” Gates wrote on his blog last year. “The book will help you understand how growing up in rural Georgia in a house without running water, electricity, or insulation shaped – for better and for worse – his time in the White House.”
Gates added that the book “feels timely in an era when the public’s confidence in national political figures and institutions is low.”
“Born a Crime” by Trevor Noah
Gates said he’s a longtime fan of “The Daily Show” host Trevor Noah.
On his blog last year, Gates wrote, “I loved reading this memoir about how its host honed his outsider approach to comedy over a lifetime of never quite fitting in.”
Noah was born to a black South African mother and a white Swiss father in apartheid South Africa during an era when mixed-race relationships were illegal.
“Much of Noah’s story of growing up in South Africa is tragic,” Gates said. “Yet, as anyone who watches his nightly monologues knows, his moving stories will often leave you laughing.”
“The Heart” by Maylis De Kerangal
While Gates seems to mostly read nonfiction, he said he loved Maylis de Kerangal’s “The Heart.”
“While you’ll find this book in the fiction section at your local bookstore, what de Kerangal has done here in this exploration of grief is closer to poetry than anything else,” Gates wrote on his blog last year.
The book tells the story of a heart transplant after a young man is killed in an accident and his parents decide to donate his heart.
“The book uses beautiful language to connect you deeply with people who may be in the story for only a few minutes,” Gates said.
“String Theory” by David Foster Wallace
The late David Foster Wallace is known for his clever essays and novels, many of which are replete with footnotes and tangents.
His “ability to use language is mind-blowing,” Gates wrote in a 2016 review of “String Theory,” Wallace’s meditation on the sport of tennis.
“He’s an artist who approaches a canvas with the exact same oil paints everyone before him has used and then applies them in breathtaking new and creative ways,” Gates said.
“Shoe Dog” by Phil Knight
Phil Knight is a one-of-a-kind CEO. In “Shoe Dog,” Knight tells the story of how he built Nike into a multibillion-dollar, globe-spanning business.
Gates recommended the book in 2016.
“He doesn’t fit the mold of the bold, dashing entrepreneur. He’s shy, introverted, and often insecure,” Gates wrote. “And yet, in spite of or perhaps because of his unusual character traits, he was able to realize the ‘Crazy Idea,’ as he calls it, to do something different with his life and create his own shoe company.”
“The Gene” by Siddhartha Mukherjee
Siddhartha Mukherjee, a professor at Columbia University’s School of Medicine, is a “quadruple threat,” according to Gates.
“Doctors are deemed a ‘triple threat’ when they take care of patients, teach medical students, and conduct research. Mukherjee, who does all of these things at Columbia University, is a ‘quadruple threat,’ because he’s also a Pulitzer Prize-winning author,” Gates wrote in a review of “The Gene” in 2016.
In the book, Mukherjee takes the reader on a journey through the “past, present, and future of genome science,” Gates wrote, “with a special focus on huge ethical questions that the latest and greatest genome technologies provoke.”
“The Myth of the Strong Leader” by Archie Brown
Author Archie Brown’s 2014 study of history’s greats leaders yielded some surprising results, Gates wrote in his 2016 review of “The Myth of the Strong Leader.”
“Brown shows that the leaders who make the biggest contributions to history and humanity generally are not the ones we perceive to be strong leaders,” Gates said.
He added: “Instead, they tend to be the ones who collaborate, delegate, and negotiate-and recognize that no one person can or should have all the answers.”
It’s a lesson that many of today’s global leaders could appreciate.
“The Grid” by Gretchen Bakke
- Bloomsbury USA
Gates is a proud nerd, and that is evident in his enthusiastic praise for Gretchen Bakke’s book about our electrical infrastructure.
“This book, about our aging electrical grid, fits in one of my favorite genres: Books About Mundane Stuff That Are Actually Fascinating,” Gates said in a 2016 blog post.
“Even if you have never given a moment’s thought to how electricity reaches your outlets, I think this book would convince you that the electrical grid is one of the greatest engineering wonders of the modern world,” Gates wrote.
Since blogging about the book, Gates and a group of other billionaires including Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg announced an investment in two energy-storage startups through the fund Breakthrough Energy Ventures.
Gates noted in his blog post that the book convinces readers “why modernizing the grid is so complex and so critical for building our clean-energy future.”
“Homo Deus” by Yuval Noah Harari
Yuval Noah Harari, an Israeli historian, is one of Gates’ favorite authors. Gates previously recommended Harari’s first book, “Sapiens,” and said on his blog last year that “Homo Deus” is a “smart look at what may be ahead for humanity.”
“So far, the things that have shaped society – what we measure ourselves by – have been either religious rules about how to live a good life, or more earthly goals like getting rid of sickness, hunger, and war,” Gates wrote about the book. “What would the world be like if we actually achieved those things?”
“Seveneves” by Neal Stephenson
In a 2016 post on his blog, Gates said that reading “Seveneves” inspired him to “rekindle his science fiction habit.”
“The plot gets going in the first sentence, when the moon blows up,” Gates said. “People figure out that in two years a cataclysmic meteor shower will wipe out all life on Earth, so the world unites on a plan to keep humanity going by launching as many spacecraft as possible into orbit.”
Stephenson, the author of “Snow Crash,” is one of the giants of the science fiction genre. His books cover subjects including archaeology, philosophy, cryptography, and quantum computing.
Revealing any more about “Seveneves” would probably give away too much.
“How Not to Be Wrong” by Jordan Ellenberg
Mathematician and writer Jordan Ellenberg wants you not to be wrong. Knowing math – really understanding how the underlying principles of numbers define everything we do – is the best way to be right, Ellenberg writes in his book.
Gates, himself a proponent of mathematical thinking, recommended Ellenberg’s book on his 2016 reading list.
“The book’s larger point is that, as Ellenberg writes, ‘to do mathematics is to be, at once, touched by fire and bound by reason’ – and that there are ways in which we’re all doing math, all the time,” Gates said.
“The Vital Question” by Nick Lane
In “The Vital Question,” British biochemist Nick Lane attacks the black hole at the heart of biology: how complex life first began.
Lane posits that energy produced by the mitochondria in our cells is what caused bacteria to make the jump to complicated, multi-cellular organisms over 1 billion years ago.
“Nick is one of those original thinkers who makes you say: More people should know about this guy’s work,” Gates said on his blog. “He is trying to right a scientific wrong by getting people to fully appreciate the role that energy plays in all living things.”
“The Power to Compete” by Ryoichi Mikitani and Hiroshi Mikitani
The Mikitanis are an enviable father-son duo. Ryoichi, the elder one, was the first Fulbright scholar to the US from Japan, and he spent a chunk of his career teaching economics at Yale. His son Hiroshi went to Harvard Business School and founded Rakuten, an e-commerce company that has made him a billionaire.
In the “The Power to Compete,” the father and son use their respective disciplines to investigate why Japan’s booming tech economy of the 80s and 90s has stagnated.
“Why were its companies – the juggernauts of the 1980s – eclipsed by competitors in South Korea and China?” Gates wrote in his description of the book on his blog. “And can they come back?”
“Enlightenment Now” by Stephen Pinker
Psychologist and writer Stephen Pinker is one of Gates’ favorite authors. In fact, Pinker’s newest book, “Enlightenment Now,” is Gates’ “favorite book of all time,” according to his blog.
In the book, Pinker takes a sweeping look a history and comes to the optimistic conclusion that we are living in the most peaceful era humans have ever enjoyed.
He analyzes 15 indicators, like literacy, quality of life, and safety, and compares data to show how these have changed over time.
“The result is a holistic picture of how and why the world is getting better,” Gates said.
“Capitalism Without Capital” by Jonathan Haskel and Stian Westlake
Gates wrote a Linkedin post earlier this month about “Capitalism Without Capital,” which was written by two economists.
The book examines one of the most important modern shifts in the global economy: companies and governments are investing in “intangible assets” – things like software and research.
“This is one of the biggest trends in the global economy that isn’t getting enough attention,” Gates wrote.
These intangible assets are produced differently than regular assets like cars and machinery. As Gates explains:
“Microsoft might spend a lot of money to develop the first unit of a new program, but every unit after that is virtually free to produce. Unlike the goods that powered our economy in the past, software is an intangible asset. And software isn’t the only example: data, insurance, e-books, even movies work in similar ways.”
According to Gates, this trend has huge ramifications for the global economy. For example, GDP calculations don’t account for spending on branding and market research, yet many major companies are centered around those intangible assets.
“What is the best way to stimulate an economy in a world where capitalism happens without capital gains?” Gates said. “We need really smart thinkers and brilliant economists digging into all of these questions.”