Bill Gates is branching out.
Already well-known as an enthusiastic reader of big nonfiction books on economics, science, and technology, Gates is finding new ways to satiate his intellectual and emotional curiosity. His favorite books of those he read in 2017 (not necessarily published this year) include a graphic novel, fiction, and a comedian’s memoir.
This year, the philanthropist and cofounder of Microsoft recommends a memoir by comedian Eddie Izzard and two books by Vietnamese refugees, Viet Thanh Nguyen and Tui Bui. This summer he also recommended comedian Trevor Noah’s memoir and The Heart, by Maylis de Kerangal, a novel translated from French. These are all signs that suggest Gates is expanding his tastes: Back in 2012, he wrote that The Hunger Games was one of the few fiction books he’d read.
Here’s Gates’s full list, with annotations published on his blog:
The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen (2015)
Nguyen’s novel is about a spy for the northern Vietnamese government who moves to the US after the end of the American Vietnam war. Ironic and absurd, The Sympathizer won the Pulitzer Prize last year. Says Gates:
…It is surprisingly bleak. Nguyen doesn’t shy away from how traumatic the Vietnam War was for everyone involved. Nor does he pass judgment about where his narrator’s loyalties should lie. Most war stories are clear about which side you should root for – The Sympathizer doesn’t let the reader off the hook so easily.
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Matthew Desmond (2016)
In his nonfiction book, sociologist Desmond follows the lives of eight families in the poorest parts of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The characters, living on less than $3 a day after they’ve paid their monthly rent, face eviction and the danger of shelters or more squalor. (Desmond is a recipient of money from the Gates Foundation, Gates notes.) He writes:
For me, though, Evicted’s biggest contribution isn’t the focus on housing. It’s the dramatic illustration of the ways in which issues of poverty are intertwined. When someone has to search for a new place to live, they miss work, which cuts back on their pay and makes them more likely to get fired. And all this instability has a terrible impact on children.
The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir, by Thi Bui (2017)
In her debut graphic-novel memoir, Bui tells the story of her parents’ lives, from their childhoods in Vietnam under French rule to their escape to the US in the late 1970s. Violent and heartbreaking, the memoir is illustrated in black, white, and shades of rust. Says Gates of both Bui’s book and The Sympathizer:
When you grow up in the United States, it’s hard to escape the Good Morning, Vietnam view of the war – to understand how the war was awful for reasons that go beyond the draft, the protests, and even the soldiers who died on the battlefield. It was a completely horrific situation for the people who lived there, many of whom weren’t combatants on either side.
Believe Me: A Memoir of Love, Death, and Jazz Chickens, by Eddie Izzard (2017)
The British stand-up comedian and actor narrates the rough patches on his long journey to success. He writes about the loss of his mother to cancer, his years as a London street performer, and the translation of British humor into German and Russian. Gates doesn’t necessarily recommend the book for readers unfamiliar with Izzard’s routine, though. As he says:
There are some comedians, such as David Sedaris and George Carlin, whose books would make perfect sense even if you haven’t seen their act. That’s not the case here. You have to witness his brand of surreal, intellectual, self-deprecating humor. Otherwise, it will be like you’re walking into the middle of a conversation.
Energy and Civilization: A History, by Vaclav Smil (2017)
Smil, a longtime researcher of energy, is a Gates favorite. (“I wait for new Smil books the way some people wait for the next Star Wars movie,” he writes.) Here, in an expanded and updated version of his 1994 book, Energy in World History, he writes about how the need for energy has shaped society, from the pre-agricultural age to today. Gates tells readers not to be discouraged if they find the book difficult at first:
I’ll admit that Energy and Civilization is not easy reading. In fact, when I read my first Smil books years ago, I felt a little beat up and asked myself, ‘Am I ever going to be able to understand all of this?’ But Energy and Civilization follows an easy chronological progression and is well edited.