Bill Gates has released a list of his top five favorite books for 2019. The titles, which address everything from sleep to charter schools and American history, are fairly conventional, but he’s a billionaire so attention must be paid. The recommendations appeared today on his blog, Gates Notes.
Gates says that “These Truths,” a one-volume history of the United States by New Yorker writer Jill Lepore, is “the most honest account of the American story I’ve ever read, and one of the most beautifully written.” He praises the book’s vast scope and Lepore’s attention to “all the ironies and contradictions in American history,” such as the fact that “America was founded on assertions of liberty and sovereignty while practicing African slavery and Native American conquest.” But he complains that the final section, about the 2008 financial crisis, “reads like the work of a critic who is caught up in the passions of the moment.” (Washington Post review.)
“Growth,” by Czech Canadian scientist and professor Vaclav Smil, is not for everyone, Gates admits, but if you can stomach some heavy technical detail, you’ll learn a lot about how civilizations grow — and reach their limits. This 664-page tome, published by MIT Press, covers everything from agriculture to steel production to smartphone use, and Gates thinks it presents a crucial argument for the necessity of acting quickly to preserve Earth’s fragile biosphere. “Nobody sees the big picture with as wide an aperture as Vaclav Smil,” he writes. But he’s more optimistic about our future than the professor is. “In my view,” Gates says, “Smil underestimates our accelerating ability to model the physical world using digital technologies equipped with artificial intelligence.” Not too surprising from the co-founder of Microsoft.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has poured millions of dollars into Summit Public Schools, a charter management organization that operates 11 schools in California and Washington state. With this year’s book list, Gates ratchets up his enthusiasm for Summit co-founder and CEO Diane Tavenner. She’s published a book called “Prepared: What Kids Need for a Fulfilled Life,” and Gates says parents who read it “will wonder how their kids can have the same extraordinary learning experiences as Summit students.” Maybe. Gates’s giddiness about Summit’s “computer-enabled learning” elides some awkward questions, and his impression of typical public school teaching sounds as up-to-date as Windows 2.1.
After so many books and countless articles, the hysteria over America’s sleep deprivation feels awfully tired. But Gates says he was roused to enlightenment by Matthew Walker, who is so impressed by having a PhD that he proclaims it right on the cover of “Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams.” The advice here is now well-known (e.g. turn down the thermostat, limit alcohol, avoid blue light), and Gates admits that it took him a while to finish. “I kept following Walker’s advice to put down the book I was reading a bit earlier than I was used to, so I could get a better night’s sleep,” which, if nothing, makes for a classic book blurb.
“This year,” Gates says, “I picked up a bit more fiction than usual,” but only one novel makes his list — and it’s from 2018: “An American Marriage,” by Tayari Jones. (He’s just catching up with former president Barack Obama and Oprah, who both recommend “An American Marriage” last year. The Washington Post did, too.) The story is about a young married couple separated for years after the husband is falsely accused and convicted of sexual assault. Gates calls it “a deeply moving read” that reminds us “how draconian our criminal justice system can be — especially for black men.”
More surprising than anything on this list of five recommended titles is the revelation that Gates has developed a taste for postmodern fiction. “I’m currently trying to finish ‘Cloud Atlas,’ by David Mitchell,” he writes. “It’s amazingly clever but a bit hard to follow. . . . I even picked up a short story collection in David Foster Wallace’s ‘Brief Interviews With Hideous Men.’ Maybe next year’s end-of-year books post will finally include the Wallace novel I’ve been wanting to read for a while: ‘Infinite Jest.’ ”
Imagine what our computer systems might look like today if Gates had read that novel when it came out in 1996.