Bill Gates' Holiday Book Recommendations for A Lousy Year

From social injustices to espionage stories, Bill Gates' book recommendations most likely offer you something interesting to read this holiday season.
Susan Fourtané

December is usually a month when many take time off from work due to the holiday season. This is the perfect time to curl up in a comfortable armchair, sip a cup of a hot beverage of your choice, covered by a warm, soft blanket. And of course, in the company of a good book. 

"Every night I'm reading a little over an hour." -Bill Gates

We can all agree upon the fact that this has been a particularly stressful year for us all. There is an urgent need to take a break; to sit, relax, and think about something completely different than what we see in the news. 

It is common knowledge that Bill Gates is an avid reader interested in a plethora of topics and authors. Gates consistently also shares his favorite book recommendations for the different seasons of the year. And for some special occasions, such as the holidays. 

The founder of Microsoft has previously shared a compelling list of books for winter. On this occasion, Gates has come up with five top reads, which he personally found to be a good source for food for thought for this year, which is now finally coming to an end. 

These below are the five books Bill Gates recommends through his Gates Notes. They are part of Bill Gates' favorite books for times when we need a real break. And I mean, a real break.

1. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander

Bill Gates' Holiday Book Recommendations for A Lousy Year
Source: Amazon

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, a New York Times Best Seller, offers an eye-opening look into how the criminal justice system in the United States unfairly targets communities of color --and especially Black communities.

Despite the first edition of this book being published more than 10 years ago, it got relevance this year due to the horrifying killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, which set off a summer of protests that put Black Lives Matter (BLM) front and center. 

A revised edition was published for the 10th anniversary of the book's publication. The anniversary edition includes updated data.

Bill Gates, like many others, has committed to reading more about systemic racism in order to deepen his understanding about the matter, thus, The New Jim Crow is on this list. Bill Gates highly recommends this book if you are interested in learning more about the real lives caught up in the United States' justice system

The book explains how mass incarceration is a cycle. "Once you’ve been in prison, you can’t often get a job after you get out, because having a felony on your record makes it hard to get hired. In some cases, the only way to make money and support your family is through illicit means --which can land you back in prison," says Gates in his book review. Of course, the result of this cycle is a permanent underclass that according to Alexander's account is disproportionately Black and low-income. 

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The topic is deep and thought-provoking. The history and numbers behind mass incarceration shown through the data collected that could be used by machine learning and Artificial Intelligence to find solutions to a problem that is not discussed enough in the media. Therefore, there is no general discussion among the public. 

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness was named one of the most important non-fiction books of the 21st century by Entertainment Weekly Slate Chronicle of Higher Education Literary Hub, Book Riot, and Zora.

2. Range: Why Generalist Triumph in a Specialized World, by David Epstein

Bill Gates' Holiday Book Recommendations for A Lousy Year
Source: Amazon

Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized Worldby David Epstein is another New York Times bestseller that tops Bill Gates recommended books. It will certainly fascinate many who share with Gates the passion for variety and thirst for knowledge. 

The world and many passions of the generalist are often misunderstood. Bill Gates' own career fits the generalist model like a glove. "As a kid, I used to sneak out of my basement bedroom to do late-night coding at the University of Washington, but my passion for computers was always mixed with many other interests. I spent a lot of time reading books on a wide range of topics," Gates writes in his blog, GatesNotes.

Gates says that Epstein provides a good framework for understanding why polymaths are so important for innovation. “In kind environments, where the goal is to re-create prior performance with as little deviation as possible, teams of specialists work superbly.” 

In the book, Epstein reports that when researchers study great innovators, they find “systems thinkers" with an “ability to connect disparate pieces of information from many different sources” and who “read more (and more broadly) than other technologists.” Theatrical innovator Lin-Manuel Miranda calls this having “a lot of apps open” in one’s brain at the same time. Gates says he likes that image. Of course. 

As a way of criticism, Bill Gates finds that "Range is that you could come away with the impression that Epstein, a generalist himself, is too critical of specialists."

3. The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz, by Erik Larson 

Bill Gates' Holiday Book Recommendations for A Lousy Year
Source: Amazon

Pandemics and wars have rather a lot in common. Both are accounts of a life form massively killing other life forms, which result in triggering global suffering that will last for years to come and will never be forgotten.

Erik Larson's book, The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz, is an account of the years 1940 and 1941 during World War II. More precisely, the book goes back in time to set the story in Great Britain, when English citizens spent almost every night in makeshift shelters as massive bombs rained down on them. In his book review, Bill Gates writes that "this German Blitzkrieg killed 44,652 Brits --almost 6,000 of them children-- and seriously injured another 28,556. 

Larson paints a picture of the fear and anxiety that English citizens, who spent almost every night huddled in basements and tube stations, felt as German soldiers tried to bomb them into submission. 

"The fear and anxiety they felt --while much more severe than what we’re experiencing with Covid-19-- sounded familiar," Gates writes. "Larson gives you a vivid sense of what life was like for average citizens during this awful period, and he does a great job profiling some of the British leaders who saw them through the crisis, including Winston Churchill and his close advisers."

“I set out to hunt for the stories that often get left out of the massive biographies of Churchill, either because there’s no time to tell them or because they seem too frivolous,” Larson wrote. Gates explains that Larson’s details come from contemporaneous accounts in private journals, including those of regular citizens as well as people close to Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler

In his book, Larson argues that Churchill’s leadership was most likely the number-one reason the British people persevered. In contrast, in today's Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is being accused of having failed Britain and the Brits due to his questionable management of both the pandemic and Brexit, which happen simultaneously in today's British nation, one isolated from the rest of the world.  

Gates rates this book as outstanding, and "far more relevant for our times than Larson could have imagined when he was researching it."

4. The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War, by Ben Macintyre

Bill Gates' Holiday Book Recommendations for A Lousy Year
Source: Amazon

Who could resist a real-life espionage thriller? The Spy and the Traitor by British journalist Ben Macintyre recalls the story of a Soviet double agent who helps prevent a nuclear war, and nearly dies for it. 

The story is set in 1983. Convinced that NATO was getting ready for a surprise nuclear attack, the U.S.S.R. (Union of Socialist and Soviet Republic, today known as Russia) prepared for nuclear war.

The book goes on telling the story of Oleg Gordievsky, the double agent who helped prevent nuclear war, and Aldrich Ames, the American turncoat who likely betrayed him. "Macintyre’s dramatic retelling of their stories comes not only from Western sources (including Gordievsky himself, who is now 82 and living under witness protection in the U.K.) but also from the Russian perspective. The book is every bit as exciting as my favorite spy novels," writes Bill Gates in his review of the book

Oleg Gordievsky became MI6’s most valuable agent within the KGB, providing a torrent of useful intelligence at incredible risk to himself. M16 is the British equivalent of the American CIA. Gordievsky's wife and two daughters knew nothing of his life as an informant. This was necessary to protect them. A tricky situation for any secret agent who needs to hide his real identity from his own family. 

Oleg Gordievsky began questioning the methods his own country was using when the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia (which later on became the Czech Republic and Slovakia), in 1968. “This brutal attack on innocent people made me hate [my own country],” he later wrote. “My soul was aching.” He began to question all the Soviet dogma that he had been learning since birth. "I’m glad I read this remarkable profile in courage,"  writes Gates.

5. Breath from Salt: A Deadly Genetic Disease, a New Era in Science, and the Patients and Families Who Changed Medicine, by Bijal P. Trivedi

Bill Gates' Holiday Book Recommendations for A Lousy Year
Source: Amazon

Cystic Fibrosis (CF), is a lung disease that affects about 30,000 people --including more than 10,000 children-- in the U.S. alone, and about 70,000 people worldwide. This is what the book is about. 

Breath from Salt by Bijal P. Trivedi is, according to Bill Gates' book review, an inspiring book. "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," Gates writes.

Yet, he says Breath from Salt is not for everyone. "But given my interest in the process of discovery and my connection to this specific effort, I couldn’t put the book down."

Passionate for so many subjects as he is, Bill Gates' reading lists are always full of surprises and inspiration. Bill Gates' recommended books are entertaining, educational, and inspiring. For Bill Gates, reading a book is not something you can do five minutes here and five minutes there.  

You need to sit down with your chosen book and devote an hour to it in order to be able to concentrate, and ultimately enjoy it. "Every night I'm reading a little over an hour."   

That makes a minimum of seven hours per week. When this piece of advice comes from someone like Bill Gates, it is motivational, inspiring, and serves as a great goal to be included on a New Year's Resolutions list. Which one of the five books recommended by Bill Gates picked on your curiosity? Happy Reading!

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