As one of Inc.com's resident book nerds, I'm frequently tasked with keeping tabs on celebrity book recommendations. Whenever anyone from Richard Branson to Oprah Winfrey to Adam Grant suggests a title, it's my job to make sure entrepreneurs know about it. Which means I've written up a lot of Bill Gates' book recommendations over the years. 

In general, they tend towards the heavy side. Whether it's a tear-jerking memoir, an investigation of evictions in America, or a deep dive into the evidence for human progress, Gates is known for recommending titles that will definitely make you smarter, but might not necessarily be all smiles. 

But apparently something's changed. Maybe it's nearly two years of pandemic stress. Maybe it's the recent turbulence in his personal life. Maybe it's just the mellowing of age, but according to Gates' latest book related blog post, the Microsoft founder turned philanthropist just wants to kick back and enjoy an engrossing story these days. 

A sci-fi junkie as kid, Gates writes that, "As I got older, I started reading a lot more non-fiction." Lately, he continues, "I've found myself drawn back to the kinds of books I would've loved as a kid."

The research-backed benefits of losing yourself in a novel. 

Reading that you might assume Gates just wants to rest his brain after a tough stretch. That's possible (and sometimes just the right thing to do). But reading pageturners actually does a lot more than distract us from the stresses of the real world, according to science. A bucket load of research shows that getting lost in fiction has impressive brain benefits. 

First, as many people (including Gates) know, reading before bed helps you sleep better. Generally reading is linked with lower stress and improved mental and physical health. Neuroscience shows that sustained, concentrated reading helps maintain your brain's ability to focus and parse complex information. But that applies to basically any book. 

What makes fiction so special? An intriguing line of research suggests that, by putting us in the shoes of characters very different from us, fiction exercises our empathy muscles, improving our emotional intelligence. Some top business schools recognize this fact and make literature required reading along with strategy and marketing texts. Icons from Barack Obama to Jeff Bezos credit novels with changing their lives and making them better leaders

So maybe Gates' recent urge to sink into some fiction isn't all about escapism and exhaustion after all. Maybe it's a smart move after a year that's taxed the empathy of all of us, and one you should consider emulating. If so, Gates offers a few book suggestions: 

  • Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro. "I love a good robot story, and Ishiguro's novel about an 'artificial friend' to a sick young girl is no exception," writes Gates. "This book made me think about what life with super intelligent robots might look like--and whether we'll treat these kinds of machines as pieces of technology or as something more." If you need another reason to pick it up, Ishiguro is also a Nobel laureate. 

  • Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell. "If you're a Shakespeare fan, you'll love this moving novel about how his personal life might've influenced the writing of one of his most famous plays," comments Gates

  • Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir. The latest novel from the author of The Martian "is a wild tale about a high school science teacher who wakes up in a different star system with no memory of how he got there," says Gates who "finished the whole thing in one weekend." 

Happy holiday season reading!