While Bill Gates has a schedule that’s planned down to the minute, the entrepreneur-turned-billionaire-humanitarian still gobbles up about a book a week.
Aside from a handful of novels, they’re mostly nonfiction books covering his and his foundation’s broad range of interests. A lot of them are about transforming systems: how nations can intelligently develop, how to lead an organization, and how social changecan fruitfully happen.
We went through the past five years of his book criticism to find the ones that he gave glowing reviews and that changed his perspective.
1. Tap Dancing to Work: Warren Buffett on Practically Everything, 1966-2012 by Carol LoomisWarren Buffett and Gates have a famously epic bromance, what with their recommending books to each other and spearheading philanthropic campaigns together.
So it’s no surprise that Gates enjoyed Tap Dancing to Work, a collection of articles and essays about and by Buffett, compiled by Fortune magazine journalist Carol Loomis.
Gates says that anyone who reads the book cover-to-cover will walk away withtwo main impressions:First, how Warren’s been incredibly consistent in applying his vision and investment principles over the durationof his career;[S]econdly, that his analysis and understanding of business and markets remains unparalleled. I wrote in 1996 that I’d never met anyone who thought about business in such a clear way. That is certainly still the case.
Getting into the mind of Buffett is “an extremely worthwhile use of time,” Gates concludes.
2. Making the Modern World: Materials and Dematerialization by Vaclav SmilGates says his favorite author is VaclavSmil, an environmental-sciences professor who writes big histories of things like energy and innovation.
His latest is Making the Modern World. It got Gates thinking.“It might seem mundane, but the issue of materials — how much we use and how much we need — is key to helping the world’s poorest people improve their lives,” he writes.“Think of the amazing increase in quality of life that we saw in the United States and other rich countries in the past 100 years. Wewant most of that miracle to take place for all of humanity over the next 50 years.”To know where we’re going, Gates says,we need to know where we’ve been — and Smil is one of his favorite sources for learning that.
3. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth KolbertIt can be easy to forget that our presentday is a part of world history. Gates says that New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert’s new book The Sixth Extinctionhelps correct that.“Humans are putting down massive amounts of pavement, moving species around the planet, over-fishing and acidifying the oceans, changing the chemical composition of rivers, and more,” Gates writes, echoing a concern that he voices in many of his reviews.“Natural scientists posit that there havebeen five extinction events in the Earth’s history (think of the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs),” he continues, “and Kolbert makes a compelling case that human activity is leading to the sixth.”To get a hint of Kolbert’s reporting, check out the series of stories that preceded the book’s publication.
4. Stress Test: Reflections on Financial Crises by Tim GeithnerGates stood at the center of an enormously complex system as CEO ofMicrosoft. Timothy Geithner did much the same as U.S. Treasury secretary — and saw the structure fall down around him during the financial crisis.“Geithner paints a compelling human portrait of what it was like to be fightinga global financial meltdown while at thesame time fighting critics inside and outside the Administration as well as his own severe guilt over his near-total absence from his family,” Gates says. “The politics of fighting financial crises will always be ugly. But it helps if the public knows a little more about the subject.”Stress Test provides that knowledge.
5. The Better Angels of Our Nature: WhyViolence Has Declined by Steven PinkerIn Better Angels, Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker branches out into the history of the most contentious of subjects: violence.
Gates says it’s one of the most important books he’s ever read.“Pinker presents a tremendous amount of evidence that humans have gradually become much less violent and much more humane,” he says, in a trend that started thousands of years ago and continued until this day.This isn’t just ivory-tower theory. Gates says the book has affected his humanitarian work.“As I’m someone who’s fairly optimisticin general,” he says, “the book struck a chord with me and got me to thinking about some of our foundation’s strategies.”
6. The Man Who Fed the World by Leon HesserEven though Gates can get a meeting with almost anyone, he can’t land a sit-down with Norman Borlaug, the late biologist and humanitarian who led the “Green Revolution” — a series of innovations that kept a huge chunk of humanity from starving.“Although a lot of people have never heard of Borlaug, he probably saved more lives than anyone else in history,” Gates says. “It’s estimated that his newseed varieties saved a billion people from starvation,” many of whom were inIndia and Pakistan.
Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the Congressional Gold Medal for his efforts — and is one of only seven people to receive that honor.
For Gates, Borlaug is a model in gettingimportant work done in the world.“Borlaug was one-of-a-kind,” he says, “equally skilled in the laboratory, mentoring young scientists, and cajoling reluctant bureaucrats and government officials.”Hesser’s The Man Who Fed the World lets you peer into the personality that saved a billion lives.
7. Business Adventures: Twelve ClassicTales from the World of Wall Street by John BrooksBack in 1991, Gates asked Buffett what his favorite book was.To reply, Buffett sent the Microsoft founder his personal copy of Business Adventures, a collection of New Yorker stories by John Brooks.Though the anecdotes are from half a century ago, the book remains Gates’ favorite.Gates says that the book serves as a reminder that the principles for buildinga winning business stay constant. He writes:For one thing, there’s an essential human factor in every business endeavor. It doesn’t matter if you have a perfect product, production plan and marketing pitch; you’ll still need the right people to lead and implement those plans.
Learning of the affections that Gates and Buffett have for this title, the business press has fallen similarly in love with the book. Slate quipped that Business Adventures is “catnip for billionaires.”
8. The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt,William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism by Doris Kearns GoodwinLike us, Gates is fascinated by the way Theodore Roosevelt was able to affect his society: busting trusts, setting up a park system, and the like.
For this reason, Gates appreciates how Goodwin’s biography uses the presidency as a lens for understanding the shift of society.“How does social change happen?” Gates asks in his review. “Can it be driven by a single inspirational leader, or do other factors have to lay the groundwork first?”He says that TR shows how many stakeholders need to be involved.“Although he tried to push through a number of political reforms earlier in his career,” Gates says, “[Roosevelt] wasn’t really successful until journalists at ‘McClure’s’ and other publications had rallied public support for change.”
9. The Rosie Project: A Novel by Graeme SimsionGates doesn’t review a lot of fiction, butThe Rosie Project, which came on the recommendation of his wife, Melinda, is an oddly perfect fit.“Anyone who occasionally gets overly logical will identify with the hero, a genetics professor with Asperger’s Syndrome who goes looking for a wife,”he writes. “(Melinda thought I would appreciate the parts where he’s a little too obsessed with optimizing his schedule. She was right.)”The book is funny, clever, and moving, Gates says, to the point that he read it in one sitting.
10. On Immunity by Eula BissEven though the science all says that vaccines are among the most important inventions in human history, there’s still a debate about whether they’re a good idea.In “On Immunity,” essayist Eula Biss pulls apart that argument.
She “uses the tools of literary analysis, philosophy, and science to examine thespeedy, inaccurate rumors about childhood vaccines that have proliferated among well-meaning American parents,” Gates writes. “Biss took up this topic not for academic reasons but because of her new role asa mom.”
11. How Asia Works by Joe StudwellJoe Studwell is a business journalist whose central mission is understanding “development.”The Financial Times said that How AsiaWorks is “the first book to offer an Asia-wide deconstruction of success and failure in economic development.”Gates says that the book’s thesis goes like this:All the countries that become development success stories (1) createconditions for small farmers to thrive, (2) use the proceeds from agricultural surpluses to build a manufacturing base that is tooled from the start to produce exports, and (3) nurture both these sectors with financial institutionsclosely controlled by the government.
12. How to Lie with Statistics by Darrell HuffPublished in 1954, How to Lie with Statistics is an introduction to statistics — and a primer on how they can be manipulated.
It’s “more relevant than ever,” Gates says.“One chapter shows you how visuals can be used to exaggerate trends and give distorted comparisons,” he says. “It’s a timely reminder, given how often infographics show up in your Facebookand Twitter feeds these days.”
13. Epic Measures by Jeremy SmithReading this biography was especially meaningful for Gates because he’s known its subject, a doctor named Chris Murray, for more than a decade.
According to Gates, the book is a “highly readable account for anyone who wants to know more about Chris’s work and why it matters.”That work involves creating the Global Burden of Disease, a public website that gathers data on the causes of human illness and death from researchers around the world. The idea is that we can’t begin finding cures for health issues if we don’t even know what those issues are.Writes Gates: “As Epic Measures shows, the more we make sure reliable information gets out there, the better decisions we all can make, and the more impact we all can have.”
14. Stuff Matters by Mark MiodownikIf you’re like most people, you use steelrazors, glass cups, and paper notepadsevery day without thinking much about the materials they’re made of.In “Stuff Matters,” Miodownik, a materials scientist, aims to show you why the science behind those materials is so fascinating.
That premise might sound similar to “Making the Modern World,” a book by Gates’ favorite author Smil, which Gates has also recommended. But Gates says the two works are “completely different.” While Smil is a “facts-and-numbers guy,” Miodownik is “heavy on romance and very light on numbers,” potentially making “Stuff Matters” an easier read.
Gates claims his favorite chapter is the one on carbon, “which offers insights into one atom’s massive past, present, and future role in human life.”
15. Hyperbole and a Half by Allie BroshIt might be hard to imagine Gates curled up with a book of comic drawings. But Hyperbole and a Half, based on the blog by the same name, is more moving and profound than it is silly.
The stories and drawings in the book are based on scenes from Brosh’s life, as well as her imagined misadventures.“It’s funny and smart as hell,” Gates writes, adding that “Brosh’s stories feel incredibly — and sometimes brutally — real.”Gates was especially moved by the parts of the book that touch on Brosh’s struggles with severe depression, including a series of images about her attempts to leave an appropriate suicide note.It’s a rare book that can simultaneouslymake you laugh, cry, and think existential thoughts — but this one seems to do it.
16. What If? by Randall MunroeAnother book based on a blog, What If?is a collection of cartoon-illustrated answers to hypothetical scientific questions.
Those questions range from the dystopian (“What if I took a swim in a typical spent nuclear fuel pool?”) to the philosophical (“What if everyone actually had only one soul mate, a random person somewhere in the world?”) Each question was posed by a different reader, and Munroe, a former roboticist for NASA, goes to the greatest lengths to answer it accuratelythrough research and interviews.
Gates writes:The reason Munroe’s approach is a great way to learn about science is thathe takes ideas that everybody understands in a general way and then explores what happens when you take those ideas to their limits. For example,we all know pretty much what gravity is. But what if Earth’s gravity were twiceas strong as it is? What if it were three times as strong, or a hundred? Looking at the question in that way makes you start to think about gravity a little differently.
For anyone who’s ever wished there were someone to indulge and investigate their secret scientific fantasies, this book comes in handy.17. Should We Eat Meat? by Vaclav SmilGates isn’t shy about proclaiming Smil, a professor emeritus at the University of Manitoba, his favorite author. In fact,he’s recommended several of Smil’s books before.
As usual, Gates writes, Smil attacks theissue of whether humans should consume meat from every possible angle. First he tries to define meat, thenhe looks at its role in human evolution, as well as how much meat each country consumes, the health and environmental risks, and the ethicality of raising animals for slaughter.Gates, who was a vegetarian for a year during his 20s, is especially impressed by how Smil uses science to debunk common misconceptions, like the idea that raising meat for food involves a tremendous amount of water.