1 / 29
28 books that Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates wants you to read
While Bill Gates has a schedule that’s planned down to the minute, the entrepreneur-turned-billionaire-humanitarian still manages to read a book a week. Aside from a handful of novels, they’re mostly non-fiction books. A lot of them are about transforming systems like how nations can intelligently develop, how to lead an organization, how social change can fruitfully happen and more. Here are the titles he’s given glowing reviews and that are said to have changed his perspective over the past several years.
2 / 29
‘The Gene: An Intimate History’ by Siddhartha Mukherjee
“Mukherjee wrote this book for a lay audience, because he knows that the new genome technologies are at the cusp of affecting us all in profound ways,” Gates writes. Mukherjee is what Gates calls a “quadruple threat.” He’s a practicing physician, teacher, researcher, and author.
3 / 29
‘A Full Life’ by Jimmy Carter
After having written more than 24 books already, President Carter’s memoir about growing up in the small town of Plains, Georgia still reads as a quick, impressive book, Gates writes. “I loved reading about Carter’s improbable rise to the world’s highest office,” he says. “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.” The stories may be from another time, but Gates says they carry a distinct timeliness as people’s trust in political institutions (and the people running them) are at near rock-bottom.
4 / 29
‘Seveneves’ by Neal Stephenson
After a science-fiction dry spell of more than a decade, in 2016 Gates picked up “Seveneves” on a friend’s recommendation, and he says he’s grateful for it. “The plot gets going in the first sentence, when the moon blows up,” he writes. But that’s only the beginning. The world soon learns the entire species is doomed: In two years’ time, a cataclysmic meteor shower will destroy all life on the pale blue dot. It’s up to humanity to send as many spacecraft into orbit as possible with the hope of escaping the apocalypse. “You might lose patience with all the information you’ll get about space flight,” Gates writes, “but I loved the technical details.”
5 / 29
‘The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future’ by Gretchen Bakke
“The Grid” is a perfect example of how Bill Gates thinks about book genres the way Netflix thinks about TV and movies. “This book, about our aging electrical grid, fits in one of my favorite genres: ‘Books About Mundane Stuff That Are Actually Fascinating,'” he writes. Growing up in the Seattle area, Gates’ first job was writing software for a company that provided energy to the Pacific Northwest. He learned just how vital power grids are to everyday life, and “The Grid” serves as an important reminder that they really are engineering marvels. “I think you would also come to see why modernizing the grid is so complex,” he writes, “and so critical for building our clean-energy future.”
6 / 29
‘Making the Modern World: Materials and Dematerialization’ by Vaclav Smil
Gates says his favorite author is Vaclav Smil, 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. We want 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.
7 / 29
‘Epic Measures’ by Jeremy Smith
Reading 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.”
8 / 29
‘Shoe Dog’ by Phil Knight
Knight, the co-founder of Nike, released the first insider account of the world-famous retailer earlier this April. Gates calls the book a “refreshingly honest” reminder that the road to success is never a straight line. It’s a winding path rife with disagreements, fallouts, and hurt feelings. “I’ve met Knight a few times over the years,” Gates writes. “He’s super nice, but he’s also quiet and difficult to get to know. Here Knight opens up in a way few CEOs are willing to do.”
9 / 29
‘Should We Eat Meat?’ by Vaclav Smil
Gates 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 the issue of whether humans should consume meat from every possible angle. First he tries to define meat, then he 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. In fact, Gates writes: Smil shows you how the picture is more complicated. It turns out that not all water is created equal. Nearly 90 percent of the water needed for livestock production is what’s called green water, used to grow grass and such. In most places, all but a tiny fraction of green water comes from rain, and because most green water eventually evaporates back into the atmosphere, it’s not really consumed. Overall, the book left Gates feeling that eventually, “the world can meet its need for meat.”
10 / 29
‘On Immunity’ by Eula Biss
Even 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 the speedy, 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 as a mom.”
13 / 29
‘The Power to Compete’ by Hiroshi Mikitani and Ryoichi Mikitani
Japan used to be an economic juggernaut, but today its output tends to live in the shadows of South Korea and China. “The Power to Compete” explores the country’s fall from technological grace, which Gates says touches a soft spot for him. Hiroshi Mikitani is the founder and CEO of Rakuten, one of the largest internet companies in the world. Together with his father, who died in 2013, the pair envision a future in which Japan is once again a thriving economic hub. “Although I don’t agree with everything in Hiroshi’s program,” Gates says, “I think he has a number of good ideas. ‘The Power to Compete’ is a smart look at the future of a fascinating country.”
14 / 29
‘Hyperbole and a Half’ by Allie Brosh
It 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 simultaneously make you laugh, cry, and think existential thoughts — but this one seems to do it.
15 / 29
‘Stuff Matters’ by Mark Miodownik
If you’re like most people, you use steel razors, glass cups, and paper notepads every 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.”
16 / 29
‘Born a Crime’ by Trevor Noah
Noah, host of “The Daily Show,” recounts his experiences growing up with a black South African mother and a white Swiss father in apartheid South Africa in the late 1980s. His book is equal mixture heartbreaking memoir and laugh-filled comedy, according to Gates, a self-admitted longtime fan of “The Daily Show.” “Much of Noah’s story of growing up in South Africa is tragic,” he says. “Yet, as anyone who watches his nightly monologues knows, his moving stories will often leave you laughing.”
18 / 29
‘The Rosie Project: A Novel’ by Graeme Simsion
Gates doesn’t review a lot of fiction, but “The 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.
19 / 29
‘Tap Dancing to Work: Warren Buffett on Practically Everything, 1966-2012’ by Carol Loomis
Warren 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 with two main impressions: First, how Warren’s been incredibly consistent in applying his vision and investment principles over the duration of 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.
20 / 29
‘How Asia Works’ by Joe Studwell
Joe Studwell is a business journalist whose central mission is understanding “development.” The Financial Times said that “How Asia Works” 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) create