It’s probably not surprising that Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates—the tireless philanthropist who has given away $41.3 billion to tackle some of the world’s hardest-to-solve problems—is also a voracious reader who devours nearly 50 books a year. (And, yes, the 62-year-old Gates still reads books actually printed on paper and even lugs them around in a book bag.)
Over the past few years, Gates—who often writes about what he’s been reading on his blog Gates Notes—has shared his top five book recommendations for summer reading and this year is no exception.
“I realized that several of my choices wrestle with big questions,” Gates writes of this summer’s picks, which he released on May 21. “Despite the heavy subject matter, all these books were fun to read, and most of them are pretty short.”
Here are the five titles that he recommends adding to your summer book list:
Leonardo da Vinci, by Walter Isaacson.
Gates has long been a Leonardo da Vinci fan, having spent $30.8 million in 1994 on one of the scientist/inventor/painter’s 16th century personal notebooks. So it’s no wonder that he was riveted by Walter Isaacson’s extensive biography of the man.
“I think Leonardo was one of the most fascinating people ever. Although today he’s best known as a painter, Leonardo had an absurdly wide range of interests, from human anatomy to the theater,” Gates writes. “Isaacson does the best job I’ve seen of pulling together the different strands of Leonardo’s life and explaining what made him so exceptional.”
Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved, by Kate Bowler.
After months of agonizing stomach pains, Bowler, a professor at Duke University’s Divinity School learns she has state IV colon cancer at the age of 35. “She sets out to understand why it happened,” writes Gates. “Is it a test of her character? The result is a heartbreaking, surprisingly funny memoir about faith and coming to grips with your own mortality.”
Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders.
In his debut experimental novel which won the 2017 Man Booker Prize, Saunders does a deep dive into Abraham’s Lincoln’s psyche after the death of his beloved son Willie.
“I thought I knew everything I needed to know about Abraham Lincoln, but this novel made me rethink parts of his life,” writes Gates. “It blends historical facts from the Civil War with fantastical elements—it’s basically a long conversation among 166 ghosts, including Lincoln’s deceased son. I got new insight into the way Lincoln must have been crushed by the weight of both grief and responsibility. This is one of those fascinating, ambiguous books you’ll want to discuss with a friend when you’re done.”
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Origin Story: A Big History of Everything, by David Christian.
Christian, an Oxford University-educated historian and scholar, is one of those big thinkers who argues that the only way to understand the past is to take a deep dive into the entire 14-billion-year history of the universe.
“David created my favorite course of all time, Big History,” write Gates. “It tells the story of the universe from the big bang to today’s complex societies, weaving together insights and evidence from various disciplines into a single narrative. If you haven’t taken Big History yet, Origin Story is a great introduction. If you have, it’s a great refresher. Either way, the book will leave you with a greater appreciation of humanity’s place in the universe.”
Factfulness: Ten Reasons We Are Wrong About the World—And Why Things Are Better Than You Think, by Hans Rosling, with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Ronnlund.
Rosling, a Swedish doctor whose wildly popular TED Talks helped transform him into a pop-star statistician, used data to show that life on Planet Earth—along with issues like population growth and global health—wasn’t nearly as gloomy as some might have you believe.
“I’ve been recommending this book since the day it came out,” writes Gates. “Hans, the brilliant global-health lecturer who died last year, gives you a breakthrough way of understanding basic truths about the world—how life is getting better, and where the world still needs to improve. And he weaves in unforgettable anecdotes from his life. It’s a fitting final word from a brilliant man, and one of the best books I’ve ever read.”