If you're thinking of giving books as holiday gifts to colleagues, customers, friends, or family members this year, Bill Gates has some recommendations for you. Gates, a famously voracious reader, says he's read many great books in 2021. But these five were especially enjoyable, he writes, and would make especially good gifts.
Here are the books and why he likes them:
1. A Thousand Brains: A New Theory of Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins
How our brains work is a topic of endless fascination for many of us, Gates included. He's read many books about the brain, most of them academic. A Thousand Brains is appropriate for non-experts who have little background in brain science or computer science, he writes. Hawkins was co-inventor of the Palm Pilot, an early precursor to today's smartphones. Since then, he has focused his attention on artificial intelligence, and that means learning to understand the non-artificial intelligence that humans possess.
Hawkins explores the neocortex, which makes up 70 percent of the brain and, he believes, consists of a column whose main function is to make constant predictions about the world around us and what our next sensory input will be. When those predictions fail, they get our full attention and the neocortex works to update that part of its model. Hawkins' view is consistent with some other analyses I've read recently, such as Josh Davis' observation that our brains seek to conserve energy by operating on autopilot much of the time.
2. The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race by Walter Isaacson
"Every Isaacson book is good," Gates says in an accompanying video. (Isaacson is particularly known for his biography of Steve Jobs.) This book tells the story of Doudna and her team's discover of the CRISPR gene editing system, which Gates calls, "one of the coolest and perhaps most consequential scientific breakthroughs of the last decade." Isaacson also does a good job of exploring the ethical issues around gene editing, he adds.
3. Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro
Ishiguro is perhaps best known for his novel The Remains of the Day. Klara and the Sun is told from the point of view of a robot in a dystopian future where robots' purpose is to serve as companions to human beings, in this case a sick girl. "It's probably healthier talking to a robot than just watching TV," Gates says in the video, adding, "We're going to have a lot of robots in our lives." He writes, "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." My guess is we'll treat them as something more, since we already do that with things like Siri and Alexa.
4. Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell
There's not much we really know about William Shakespeare, but one of the few things we do know is that he had a son named Hamnet who died at the age of eleven, and that Shakespeare wrote Hamlet (apparently a common variation of Hamnet) a couple of years later. O'Farrell focuses on Shakespeare's children and his wife, left behind in Stratford-upon-Avon while Shakespeare is working in the theater in London. The author conjectures what their marriage might have been like, and how the tragedy of losing a child might have inspired The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.
"I would recommend it--it's a good story," Gates says in his video.
5. Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir
Weir is best known for The Martian. In this book, the protagonist is a high school science teacher who wakes up on a spaceship in a different star system with no idea how he got there. He soon figures out that he's been sent on a mission to save Earth from an extraterrestrial threat. "It's a fun read, and I finished the whole thing in one weekend," Gates writes.
You may have noticed that this makes two science fiction novels on Gates' recommended reading list. "When I was a kid, I was obsessed with science fiction," he explains. "Paul Allen and I would spend countless hours discussing Isaac Asimov's original Foundation trilogy." As Gates got older, wanting his reading to be more educational, he began reading less fiction and more nonfiction. "Lately, though, I've found myself drawn back to the kinds of books I would've loved as a kid," he writes.
It's a useful reminder that there's nothing wrong with reading purely for pleasure, especially around holiday times. So grab one or more of these fun-sounding books, as a gift, or just for yourself.