Bill Gates' recommended reads
Bill Gates' recommended reads

Long known as a business magnate, Bill Gates has in recent years engaged in a varied array of more philanthropic pursuits, an evolution that has been reflected closely by his personal blog Gates Notes. There, amid links to podcasts, news, articles and videos about our world, Gates has also been reviewing the books he reads, and highlighting those he’s currently reading.

Together, his recommendations paint a worldly picture, ranging from philosophy and fiction to science and memoir – all of which inform Gates’ forthcoming book How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, in which he delineates a plan for reducing the world’s greenhouse gas emissions to zero.

Ahead of the book’s February release, we’ve rounded up a selection of some of his most compelling picks, alongside a smattering of Gates’ own thoughts.

How Not To Be Wrong by Jordan Ellenberg (2014)

Jordan Ellenberg actually studied under the same math professor as Bill Gates at college, but Gates claims he would “like his book even if we didn’t have that in common”. The maths we learn in school can seem like an abstract set of rules, laid down by the ancients and not to be questioned. In fact, Jordan Ellenberg shows us, maths touches on everything we do and Gates describes the book as “a series of stories about how a lot of the apparently non-mathematical systems that underpin our daily lives are actually deeply mathematical” – for example calculating how early you really need to get to the airport. The lesson Gates took away is that there are ways in which we’re all doing math, all the time. Ellenberg’s next book, Shape: The Hidden Geometry of Absolutely Everything, is out next year.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (2016)

Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is sentenced to spend his life under house arrest in Moscow’s Metropol Hotel. It’s 1922, and the Bolsheviks have just taken power of the newly formed Soviet Union. The book follows the Count for the next 30 years as he makes the most of his life despite its limitations. Gates describes A Gentleman in Moscow as “an amazing story because it manages to be a little bit of everything. There’s fantastical romance, politics, espionage, parenthood, and poetry. The book is technically historical fiction, but you’d be just as accurate calling it a thriller or a love story.” Barack Obama also recommended the book in his 2017 end-of-year roundup.

Good Economics for Hard Times by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo (2019)

“Two economists who are honest about the limits of economics and don’t oversimplify are the husband-and-wife team of Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo,” Gates writes; they are also the winners of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Economics. Just like their first book, Poor Economics, their new one is easily accessible for readers who don’t have a degree in economics. The authors show how economics, when handled correctly, can help us solve the thorniest social and political problems of our day. From immigration to inequality, slowing growth to accelerating climate change, we have the resources to address the challenges we face but we are so often blinded by ideology. Gates notes that “their research is not hard science, like chemistry or physics. But I found most of it to be useful and compelling. I suspect you will too.”

Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker (2017)

Wrote Gates: “Back in my early Microsoft days, I routinely pulled all-nighters when we had to deliver a piece of software. Once or twice, I stayed up two nights in a row. I knew I wasn’t as sharp when I was operating mostly on caffeine and adrenaline, but I was obsessed with my work, and I felt that sleeping a lot was lazy. Now that I’ve read Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep, I realize that my all-nighters, combined with almost never getting eight hours of sleep, took a big toll.” In this book, the first of its kind written by a scientific expert, Professor Matthew Walker explores 20 years of cutting-edge research to solve the mystery of why sleep matters.

Educated by Tara Westover (2018)

Tara Westover and her family grew up preparing for the End of Days but, according to the government, she didn't exist. She hadn't been registered for a birth certificate; she had no school records because she'd never set foot in a classroom, and no medical records because her father didn't believe in hospitals. As she grew older, her father became more radical and her brother more violent. At 16, Tara knew she had to leave home. In doing so, she discovered both the transformative power of education, and the price she had to pay for it. In Gates’ words it is “an amazing story… Tara’s process of self-discovery is beautifully captured in Educated. It’s the kind of book that I think everyone will enjoy, no matter what genre you usually pick up.” You can watch his conversation with Tara here.

Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World by Fareed Zakaria (2020)

In this urgent and timely book, Fareed Zakaria, one of the “top ten global thinkers of the last decade” (Foreign Policy), foresees the nature of a post-pandemic world: the political, social, technological and economic consequences that may take years to unfold. In ten surprising, hopeful ‘lessons’, he writes about the acceleration of natural and biological risks, the obsolescence of the old political categories of right and left, the rise of digital life, the future of globalisation and an emerging world order split between the United States and China. Gates coined it “a very promising title” – a must-read to reflect on the recent seismic changes to our world.

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander (2010)

“There’s a lot of books about racial injustice that I probably should have read more of in the past,” Gates tells Lloyd Minor in a recent interview. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests this year, many people turned to this book to educate themselves – including Gates, who suggested it for “thinking about how other people perceive the justice system”. Lawyer and activist Michelle Alexander offers a stunning account of the rebirth of a caste-like system in the United States, one that has resulted in millions of African Americans locked behind bars and then relegated to a permanent second-class status, denied the very rights supposedly won in the Civil Rights Movement. A searing call to action for everyone concerned with social justice, The New Jim Crow is one of the most important books about race in the 21st Century.

Evicted by Matthew Desmond (2016)

Matthew Desmond received one of the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius” grants and won a Pulitzer for this book, and Gates could see why: “Evicted is well worth reading for anyone who wants to better understand poverty in America. It is beautifully written, thought-provoking, and unforgettable.” Evicted tells the stories of the hundreds of thousands – and maybe millions – of Americans who are evicted from their homes every year. In Milwaukee, where Desmond did his reporting, one in eight renters were forced to move in a two-year period. As shocking as those numbers are, “Evicted is primarily about people, not data,” and Gates states that “this book gave me a better sense of what it is like to be very poor in this country than anything else I have read.”

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion (2013)

Writes Gates: “Melinda picked up The Rosie Project, and she loved it so much that she kept stopping to read passages out loud to me. I started it myself at 11 p.m. one Saturday and stayed up with it until 3 a.m. the next morning. Anyone who occasionally gets overly logical will identify with the hero, a genetics professor with Asperger’s Syndrome who goes looking for a wife. This is one of the most profound novels I’ve read in a long time.” He also recommends the sequels, The Rosie Effect and The Rosie Result.


The Ride of a Lifetime by Robert Iger (2019)

Bill Gates doesn’t read many books about how to run a business. In his experience, he says, “it is rare to find one that really captures what it’s like to build and operate an organization or that has tips you could really put into practice.” However The Ride of a Lifetime. by former Disney CEO Robert Iger, is a business book he’d actually recommend. Gates writes that “Iger does a great job explaining what it is like to be a CEO” and “is able to take you inside the workings of a massive media company and show how he thought about building on its strengths and shoring up its weaknesses.”

Image: Ryan MacEachern / Penguin

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