December 18, 2012

The Bill Gates reading list


“I made an unimaginable sum of money while reading this book. Reviewing is so lucrative!”

Bill Gates is an avid reader. And as we’ve reported on MobyLives before, since early 2011 the founder of Microsoft and America’s single wealthiest man ($66 billion as of this September) has even been writing personal book reviews for his site The Gates Notes. The reviews are generally well written if not, of course, professional or overly literary. The main benefit of the site—other than the gentle absurdity of the whole thing—is that when you are Bill Gates, and you review, say, Daniel Yergin or Steven Pinker, they sure as hell get in touch and have a conversation with you. The site is full, then, of some pretty interesting discussions with prominent writers.

Today Gates released his choices for the best books of 2012, and they may just be interesting enough to cut through the usual migraine-caliber high pitched squeal of a million year-end lists. I don’t mean the book themselves are interesting. They are decidedly not that. Oh, taken individually there are some fantastic books on there, including Katherine Boo‘s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, but taken together the list is nothing special. That is, until you remember that these books were chosen by a man whose wealth is enough to make literal what would otherwise be ethical experiments. Gates does not have to ask what would happen if a person were raised in a state of nature. The man could buy a state, rename it “Nature”, kick everyone else out, and carefully raise one person there. And I think, upon close-reading, some of that literalism is apparent in the reviews of his ten favorite books. Take a look ate the excerpts below to see what I mean.

1. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker

Not only do I appreciate Pinker’s detailed evidence that violence has declined, I also find the premise interesting. Who would think that the terrible scourge of violence could be curbed or even eliminated? Physical violence, that is. Brutal cut-throat monopolist business practices are still A-OK, I’m pretty sure. The best book I read this year.

2. Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China by Ezra F. Vogel

This one really blew my mind. Who would have thought that one man could combine totalitarian power and rapacious greed so successfully in one empire? Highly recommended.

5. Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo

This book is incredibly moving, a powerful look at crushing poverty just yards away from extreme wealth on the edges of Mumbai. The portrait she paints is so colorful and heart-breaking, I almost had one of my many many employees spend a nearly unmeasurable fraction of my wealth to at least lessen the struggles of a few families in this particular slum, but then I got hungry for a peanut butter and banana sandwich. Have you ever had one of those? Elvis ate them! A great book.

6. One Billion Hungry: Can We Feed the World? by Gordon Conway

I don’t know about this WE business, but I can. Probably more than once, depending on how everyone feels about sweet potatoes. You like sweet potatoes, right? I love sweet potatoes. My favorite part of the book, other than his thoughtful, measured look at a seemingly intractable problem, is the part where he mentions my name. Hi Gordon!

9. This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly by Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff

Remember when you bought that Zune? Talk about financial folly, am I right? Hi-yo! No, but seriously, this book is one of the best accounts I’ve ever read about the constant crises that define our market systems, and why exactly I became ever-so-slightly less grossly rich back in 2008. Those were rough times, I had to switch from, well, no, now that I think about it, exactly nothing changed for me out here in my robot house, but Warren tells me things were bad. An excellent read.

As you can see, while on the whole pretty basic, a bit of the enigma that is the life of Bill Gates does tend to show between the lines of these entirely authentic not-at-all hastily fabricated and hopefully-not-actionable reviews.




Dustin Kurtz is the marketing manager of Melville House, and a former bookseller.