January 5, 2016
Is Bill Gates the new Oprah? (No, of course not.)
by Ena Brdjanovic
Bill Gates can add another accolade to his list—the billionaire co-founder of Microsoft is also a book critic.
Katherine Rosman at The New York Times reports that Gates has garnered recent attention from readers and publishers alike for the book reviews he’s been posting on Gates Notes, a blog which primarily focuses on the philanthropic initiatives of The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. (Gates has been posting book reviews for years—MobyLives wrote about his terrifying summer reading list back in 2013.)
Gates, who reportedly reads about 50 books per year, has expectedly delphic literary tastes. From textbooks to novels, Gates reviews and recommends a wide-array of titles, from the calculable tech evangelists (think baby-boomer dad titles) to the wonderfully surprising (check out his review of Allie Brosh’s memoir, “Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened).
As Gates told The New York Times, while the reviews include both fiction and nonfiction, some utilitarian thinking goes into which books he chooses to spotlight with a review:
“I read textbooks related to global health but they are pretty technical for a general audience, so I generally don’t review them. I make an exception for things like Sustainable Materials: With Both Eyes Open, where the authors’ conclusions are important, and they help clarify some important basic facts. I like to share what I learn from books like that because I know most people won’t read the whole thing but some will read an 800-word review of it.”
Aptly, Gates eschews negative reviews in favor of giving space to titles he wants to put in front of his audience. Unsurprisingly, this has drawn the attention of many a publishing house. Rosman explains that Gates might just be seen as a publishing heaven-send, a new voice to fill the space left behind by Oprah and Stephen Colbert:
As publishers have become more aware of Mr. Gates’s reviews—missing the publicity they used to get from Oprah Winfrey’s televised book club or from the regular author appearances on “The Colbert Report,” which have been less frequent since Stephen Colbert moved to CBS from Comedy Central—they have tried to figure out how to get their new books in front of him.
Though, it’s worth noting that unlike Oprah and Colbert, Gates’s reading list is slightly out of the reach of big house influence. While a cunning publicist can network a book atop the teetering stack on Gates’s desk, it doesn’t guarantee a read, or a review (sorry, Julia and Kait). As book publicists have found, Gates chooses his own reading roster (with some help from his wife, Melinda)—also, publishers beware: Gates often reviews titles years after pub date.
For a sampling of books that recently caught Gates’s attention, his ‘best of’ list for 2015 includes: The Road to Character, by David Brooks; Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words, by Randall Munroe; Being Nixon: A Man Divided, by Evan Thomas; Sustainable Materials With Both Eyes Open, by Julian M. Allwood, Jonathan M. Cullen, et al.; Eradication: Ridding the World of Diseases Forever?, by Nancy Leys Stepan; Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, by Carol S. Dweck; an honorable mention was given to Nick Lane for The Vital Question.
No word yet on how long before the books above feature little roundel stickers of Gates’s face touting: BILL GATES BOOK CLUB PICK.
Ena Brdjanovic is Director of Digital Media at Melville House.