“I used to ask my teachers what their favorite books were and make my way through the lists they gave me,” says the Microsoft founder and philanthropist, whose new book is “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster.”
What books are on your night stand?
“Infinite Jest.” I’m on a mission to read everything David Foster Wallace wrote, and I’m slowly working my way through everything else before I get to that one. I’ve also got a copy of “The Three-Body Problem,” by Liu Cixin, which I’ve been meaning to read for a while.
What’s the last great book you read?
I really liked President Obama’s new book. It was fascinating to read about times when he struggled with self-doubt and how he dealt with it. He’s honest about where he might have done things differently with the benefit of hindsight. It had a level of candor and self-reflection that isn’t all that common among leaders. I was surprised that he portrayed the job as less crazy than I’ve always imagined it to be.
Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?
I tend to read new history or science books, or the newer releases that friends or colleagues recommend. “The Catcher in the Rye” has been one of my favorites since middle school, though. The first time I read it in eighth grade, I thought it was just an entertaining story. Then someone explained to me that it had a deeper meaning, which I hadn’t realized about books yet. I immediately read it again just so I could try and uncover the hidden themes.
What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?
“Business Adventures,” by John Brooks, a collection of his New Yorker articles about business from the 1960s. Even though the world has changed a lot in the past 50 years, Brooks’s insights still hold up today. Warren Buffett loaned me his copy years ago and told me it was his favorite business book. Now it’s my favorite, too.
In “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster,” you unexpectedly cite “Weather for Dummies” as one of the best books you’ve found on weather. What science and nature books would you recommend for somebody who wants to understand climate change?
“Weather for Dummies” is probably the best book written for a general audience about the subject. If you want to understand more about how weather and climate are interconnected, John Houghton’s textbook “Global Warming: The Complete Briefing” is good. There is also a Great Courses lecture series called “Earth’s Changing Climate.” Give it six hours and you will know enough to be the hit of the next party you go to, as soon as we can have those again.
Are there researchers or popular science writers you especially admire?
I’ve always been a big fan of Stephen Jay Gould, especially his writing about evolution. Elizabeth Kolbert was a guest on the podcast that Rashida Jones and I did, and I’m eager to read her follow-up to “The Sixth Extinction.” I’ll read anything Atul Gawande writes. Vaclav Smil is a mind-blowing researcher, but his work is very academic and might be an acquired taste for some people. Ed Yong’s book about the human microbiome was terrific.
What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?
I read Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow” a few months ago, and I was shocked by the stories she tells about the extreme prison sentences judges are often forced to hand down. I knew that mandatory minimums were a big problem — especially for people of color — but it’s heartbreaking to read about specific cases. She tells one particularly sad story about a man who got 10 years in prison without parole for what was basically a small lapse in judgment. The judge broke down in tears while issuing his sentence. Her book was written a decade ago, but sadly it’s just as relevant today.
Which subjects do you wish more authors would write about?
I’m surprised more books haven’t been written about how the insights we’re gaining from big data could be used for good. I read “Everybody Lies,” by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, last summer, which is all about what internet data — and especially search engines — reveal about human behavior. (Did you know that people who have pancreatic cancer often Google both “back pain” and “yellowing skin” before being diagnosed?) It was super interesting, but he didn’t get into what we could do with these learnings. I’d love to read a thoughtful book about how this information could make life better.
Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?
I think books are one of the best ways to learn about the world, so I love reading things that teach me something new. My reading list always includes a bunch of history and science books. Over a decade ago, I started reviewing books on my blog, but it’s only a small look at what I read every year, and it doesn’t include things like the academic textbooks or research reports that I find really useful. I gravitate more toward nonfiction, although I wouldn’t say I avoid fiction. I only read a couple novels each year. I usually end up loving them, though, so maybe I should try to read more.
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
I’ve always liked getting recommendations from other people, even when I was a little kid. I used to ask my teachers what their favorite books were and make my way through the lists they gave me. Our school librarian used to suggest things for me to read, too. She’d often give me books that were supposed to be for kids older than I was, which was very exciting for me. The book I probably read the most growing up was “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress,” a great science fiction book by Robert Heinlein.
How have your reading tastes changed over time?
I used to read a lot of science fiction when I was a kid, but not so much as an adult (although I rediscovered my love for the genre through Neal Stephenson’s incredible “Seveneves” a few years ago). These days, I reach for books about a much broader range of topics than I used to. I read Andy Puddicombe’s “The Headspace Guide to Meditation and Mindfulness” a couple years ago — I don’t think my 20-year-old self would’ve ever picked that one. As my kids have grown older, they’ve introduced me to a lot of great books and authors that I wouldn’t necessarily have come across by myself, like John Green. That’s been a lot of fun. And Melinda is always helping me expand my horizons — she suggested I read Edith Eva Eger’s book “The Choice” last year, and I loved it.
What book would you recommend for America’s current political moment?
“These Truths,” by Jill Lepore. If you’re going to solve a problem, you need to understand the context behind how it came to be. Lepore has written the most honest accounting of our country’s history that I’ve ever read. The book is long, but it makes it clear how a lot of what we learned in school is simplified and ignores the less savory parts of American history.
What do you plan to read next?
I can’t wait to read Walter Isaacson’s new book, “The Code Breaker,” when it comes out in a couple weeks. It’s about Jennifer Doudna, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry last year for her work on the CRISPR gene-editing platform.
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