A few hours ago, Bill Gates blogged his suggestions for summer reading. His previous year's suggestions were somewhat weighty tomes, but this year, he's suggesting books that he characterizes as "beach reading." Here are his picks:

  1. Hyperbole and a Half, by Allie Brosh
    Gates comments: "Based on Brosh's wildly popular website, [the book] consists of brief vignettes and comic drawings about her young life. The adventures she recounts are mostly inside her head, where we hear and see the kind of inner thoughts most of us are too timid to let out in public."
  2. The Magic of Reality, by Richard Dawkins
    Gates comments: "An engaging, well-illustrated science textbook offering compelling answers to big questions [and] a plea for readers of all ages to approach mysteries with rigor and curiosity."
  3. What If?, by Randall Munroe
    Gates comments: "People write Munroe with odd questions about science. Munroe's explanations are funny, but the science underpinning his answers is very accurate [and] you'll also learn a bit about things like ballistics, DNA, the oceans, the atmosphere, and lightning."
  4. xkcd: volume 0, by Randall Munroe
    Gates comments: "A collection of posts from Munroe's blog XKCD, which is made up of cartoons he draws making fun of things--mostly scientists and computers, but lots of other things too."
  5. On Immunity, by Eula Biss
    Gates comments: "Biss examines what lies behind people's fears of vaccinating their children. Like many of us, she concludes that vaccines are safe, effective, and almost miraculous.... But she is not out to demonize anyone who holds opposing views."
  6. How to Lie with Statistics, by Darrell Huff
    Gates comments: "Shows you how visuals can be used to exaggerate trends and give distorted comparisons--a timely reminder, given how often infographics show up.... [It's also an] introduction to the use of statistics, and a helpful refresher for anyone who is already well versed in it."
  7. Should We Eat Meat?, by Vaclav Smil
    Gates comments: "The richer the world gets, the more meat it eats. And the more meat it eats, the bigger the threat to the planet.... I don't think we can expect large numbers of people to make drastic reductions [so] I'm betting on innovation, including higher agricultural productivity and the development of meat substitutes."

Of the seven Gates picked, two are among my favorite books. I recently recommended How to Lie with Statistics as one of "7 Short Books Worth More Than an MBA," and The Magic of Reality is the next book I'm reading to my 10-year-old son at bedtime.

Based on Gates's comments, I can tell that the other five are right up my alley, too. In fact, when I started writing this post, I checked out the two blogs he linked to and I got distracted from writing, which is why I'm posting this in the middle of the night!

As I think about the list, what strikes me as important isn't so much the books themselves but that Gates chooses to share his reading habits with the world. I mean, it's not as if he has anything to prove.

Consider: Gates is the richest man in the world with a net worth exceeding $80 billion. He doesn't need to make himself more popular by recommending books. That he spends the time and effort to do so sets him apart from his financial peers.

In the past (and indeed still today), most ultra-wealthy moguls either obsessively seek additional wealth or withdraw into a cocoon of privilege, like Howard Hughes, the du Pont heirs, and William Randolph Hearst (a.k.a. Citizen Kane).

Some do become philanthropists, but often their giving goes towards charities like art museums or their alma maters, charities that keep the money benefiting their own personal circle of privilege.

Gates, on the other hand, has spent his money on projects like eradicating malaria, where the only thanks he'll ever get is from the desperately poor of the world. He's honestly trying to make the world a better place. In this case, one reader at a time.

As I look over his list, what impresses me most is how much Gates has grown as an individual. When I interviewed him back during his Microsoft years, he was all about the business of technology. Today, he's like the mentor we all wish we had.

So much energy in business today is all about the push-push-push for success, so it's refreshing to see an icon of entrepreneurship who no longer needs to posture or preen but instead wants to share, wisely and well, what he's acquired and learned.

Published on: May 21, 2015
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