This year, Bill Gates’ recommended reading list covers a wide range of subjects. He shares his anticipated annual selections on Gates Notes, where he remarks that the act of exploring diverse subject matter helped him get through a difficult year. “In tough times—and there’s no doubt that 2020 qualifies as tough times—those of us who love to read turn to all kinds of different books,” he writes.
The philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder explains that he wanted to engage with both heavy topics like systemic racism and lighter ones, for a change of pace. And he hopes that his recommendations will help readers end 2020 “on a good note.” Here, the five books that Gates found helpful and inspiring this year.
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander
When it was published in 2010, The New Jim Crow, by civil rights lawyer and legal scholar Michelle Alexander, illuminated the realities of the U.S. mass incarceration crisis and sparked national debate over the country’s prison system. In the years that followed, the book inspired organizing around racial justice issues and spent nearly 250 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. “Like many white people, I’ve committed to reading more about and deepening my understanding of systemic racism,” Gates writes. One of the books he turned to was Alexander’s, which he found to be particularly “eye-opening” in its examination of the relationship between communities of color and the American criminal justice system.
Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, David Epstein
What’s the key to becoming the best of the best? David Epstein looks at people who are considered to be the most successful in their fields, from scientists to athletes to musicians, to see what they have in common. And he observes a pattern: in most cases, they each have a variety of interests, rather than just one—in other words, they’re generalists. Epstein’s framework for understanding why certain people excel resonated with Gates; in reflecting on his own career, he believes he fits this generalist model. Gates also writes that he can attribute some of Microsoft’s achievements to its leaders thinking broadly about talent. “We hired not just brilliant coders but people who had real breadth within their field and across domains,” he adds.
The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz, Erik Larson
This masterful account of Winston Churchill’s first year as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom reads like an engrossing thriller. Erik Larson, author of The Devil in the White City, details the brutalities of war in the midst of Hitler’s bombing campaign, which killed over 40,000 people in the U.K. Larson constructs an urgent portrait of Churchill’s leadership amid worsening crises. Gates writes: “Larson gives the reader a ‘you are there’ sense of the intensity of Churchill’s work with his team on life-and-death challenges—and solving them at a pace I found to be mind-blowing.”
The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War, Ben Macintyre
Another true story of political crisis, at the center of Ben Macintyre’s absorbing tale of espionage and betrayal is Oleg Gordievsky, the KGB officer who worked as a double agent for the British during the Cold War. Macintyre follows Gordievsky’s journey and captures his eventual escape from Moscow in pages that feel reminiscent of a suspenseful spy novel. “Macintrye, who has a keen eye for detail, does a great job narrating the escape scene and all the ways it almost fails,” Gates writes, teasing, “I won’t give away any of those details here.”
Breath From Salt: A Deadly Genetic Disease, a New Era in Science, and the Patients and Families Who Changed Medicine Forever, Bijal P. Trivedi
In 1999, Gates’ colleague at Microsoft asked if he would be willing to help financially support the development of new drugs for cystic fibrosis. It was a personal plea—both of the colleague’s children had the disease. Along with his wife Melinda Gates, the philanthropist ended up providing $20 million to fund a new research project, which led to groundbreaking work in creating cystic fibrosis medicines. For this reason, Bijal P. Trivedi’s book was one Gates couldn’t put down. Breath From Salt is a deep dive into cystic fibrosis, moving from the origins of the deadly disease to the discoveries about it made by the people who refused to give up on finding a cure. Gates found the book inspiring: “It’s a testament to what’s possible when passionate leaders help to harness the unique strengths of philanthropy, nonprofits, government, academia, biotechs, big pharma and medical providers.”