Billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates is a famously voracious reader. He regularly recommends the books he likes best on his blog. On May 20, he released his suggested summer reading list.
Gates admits these books aren’t a typical vacation collection. “None of them are what most people think of as a light read,” he warns. The books Gates recommends mostly deal with disruption. “But I don’t mean ‘disruption’ in the way tech people usually mean it,” Gates explains in an accompanying blog post. “I’ve recently found myself drawn to books about upheaval (that’s even the title of one of them)—whether it’s the Soviet Union right after the Bolshevik revolution, the United States during times of war, or a global reevaluation of our economic system.”
Even if reading about upheaval doesn’t sound like the most relaxing way to spend a summer vacation, Gates’ list does have one fiction pick sure to entertain even as it disrupts. As for the rest, they provide heady notions to contemplate while sipping fruity drinks or cold beer or chilled wine: Almost anything pairs well with sunshine and a little free time.
Upheaval by Jared Diamond
According to Gates, Upheaval ”explores how societies react during moments of crisis.” The book examines how nations have at various times managed existential challenges like civil war, foreign threats, and general malaise, providing a framework for future problem-solving. “It sounds a bit depressing, but I finished the book even more optimistic about our ability to solve problems than I started,” Gates writes.
Prospective readers of the book, released this month, should be warned, however, that Upheaval just got a scathing review in the New York Times (paywall). Anand Giridharadas, author of Winners Take All, called it flawed both substantively and conceptually. He took issue with Diamond’s framework and accused him of not checking facts. Giridharadas later called Gates out for recommending the text on Twitter.
The Future of Capitalism by Paul Collier
Books about capitalism gone awry are proliferating (Giridharadas’s book, noted above, is among them). In Collier’s contribution, published last October, the Oxford University economist argues that ruthless capitalism, focused exclusively on profit, is tearing up the fabric of societies and undermining the legitimacy of this system.
As a billionaire and as a philanthropist, Gates, of course, has a personal interest in this book, which he calls “a thought-provoking look at a topic that’s top of mind for a lot of people right now.” The billionaire notes that he doesn’t agree with everything Collier writes but concedes that “his background as a development economist gives him a smart perspective on where capitalism is headed.”
Nine Pints by Rose George
This nonfiction book about blood, medicine, and money looks at the business of health—particularly the lack of interest in women’s health issues. It was released last October and it’s not for the faint of heart. “If you get grossed out by blood, this one probably isn’t for you,” Gates warns. Nonetheless, he found it “fascinating.” The title refers to the volume of blood in the average adult and that is just one of the many “super-interesting facts that will leave you with a new appreciation for blood” to be found in this text, Gates says. For blood lovers and vampires, Nine Pints might be followed up by Bad Blood by John Carreyrou, an account of the rise and fall of Elizabeth Holmes’ Theranos, which Gates recommended last year.
Presidents of War by Michael Beschloss
This book about the Vietnam War and eight other conflicts that the US has been involved in has a “broad scope,” according to Gates, which “lets you draw important cross-cutting lessons about presidential leadership.” Gates is especially interested in the Vietnam War, so that’s why he chose the book. But even if military history isn’t your thing, Gates has pointed out previously that if you have a broad enough framework, you can read anything and glean something.
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
Gates caved to peer pressure on this one, writing, “It seems like everyone I know has read this book. I finally joined the club after my brother-in-law sent me a copy, and I’m glad I did.”
A Gentleman in Moscow is the one novel on Gates’ latest recommended reading list, published in 2016, and it must be entertaining as it is being made into a British TV series. The story about a count under house arrest in the early 20th century in a Moscow hotel is “fun, clever, and surprisingly upbeat,” according to Gates, who calls it “an amazing story that anyone can enjoy.” To the extent that you might question his ability to assess what counts as enjoyable to the general public, Gates points out that he’s a fan of Fyodor Dostoevsky and says he has read everything by the 19th century Russian novelist. That does give him some literary street cred, even if nonfiction texts tend to dominate his picks.