By Kirsten Salyer
May 17, 2016
IDEAS
Kirsten Salyer is a writer and the former Deputy Editor of TIME Ideas

Looking for a smart summer read? Bill Gates released his annual summer reading list Tuesday.

In a blog post on his personal blog Gates Notes, Gates explains his picks: “This summer, my recommended reading list has a good dose of books with science and math at their core. But there’s no science or math to my selection process.”

Well, maybe just a little.

Gates’ summaries of his choices all encourage the reader to learn new things, think in new ways and ask tough questions. He seems to say: Listen to these writers—but don’t be afraid to talk back.

1. Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson

This sci-fi apocalyptic novel isn’t all fantasy. “You might lose patience with all the information you’ll get about space flight—Stephenson, who lives in Seattle, has clearly done his research—but I loved the technical details,” Gates writes.

2. How Not to be Wrong, by Jordan Ellenberg

Reading about math might not seem like much of a beach read. But as Annie Murphy Paul wrote for TIME when the book came out in 2014, “rather than putting people off, it will make its readers want to stick around.” Gates explains: “The book’s larger point is that, as Ellenberg writes, ‘to do mathematics is to be, at once, touched by fire and bound by reason’—and that there are ways in which we’re all doing math, all the time.”

3. The Vital Question, by Nick Lane

How do we go about answering the question: where did life begin? Lane suggests following the energy. “Even if the details of Nick’s work turn out to be wrong, I suspect his focus on energy will be seen as an important contribution to our understanding of where we come from,” Gates writes.

[youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CdWY4NBvfLo&w=640&h=360]

4. The Power to Compete, by Ryoichi Mikitani and Hiroshi Mikitani

A series of dialogues between Ryoichi, an economist who died in 2013, and his son Hiroshi, founder of the Internet company Rakuten, analyzes why Japan’s companies were overshadowed by competitors in China and South Korea. “Although I don’t agree with everything in Hiroshi’s program, I think he has a number of good ideas,” Gates writes.

5. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Noah Yuval Harari

Harari covers the entire history of humankind, touching on innovations including artificial intelligence and genetic engineering. “Both Melinda and I read this one, and it has sparked lots of great conversations at our dinner table,” Gates writes.

And that seems to be the key to Gates’ selection method: sparking conversation—whether you’re talking about the book or talking back to it.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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