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Bill Gates' summer reading: Sci-fi, Japanese economics and recreational mathematics

Bill Gates
J. Countess | WireImage | Getty Images

Bill Gates — technology entrepreneur extraordinaire and the world's richest man — has recommended dozens of books over the years, and this summer is no exception.

The voracious reader and self-proclaimed "learning nerd" is known to plow through at least one book every week, with a heavy emphasis on business, science and mathematics. And although the summer is (almost) over, his book menu offers plenty of brain fodder for book lovers to absorb in the fall and beyond.

Some of Gates' favorite tomes range from the eclectic to the informative, including an 800-page science fiction novel and a 200-page nonfiction book on how moribund Japan can regain its economic mojo.

Writing on his personal blog, gatesnotes, Gates said he hoped each selection would inspire readers to "go off the beaten path."

"[These] books are simply ones that I loved, made me think in new ways and kept me up reading long past when I should have gone to sleep." Gates credited his childhood librarian, Blanche Caffiere, for stoking his lifelong passion for knowledge as a 9-year-old student at Seattle's View Ridge Elementary School.

"My 4th grade teacher made it okay for me to be a messy, nerdy boy who loved to read books. It's remarkable how much power one good person can have in shaping the life of a child."

Bill Gates

So whether you're heading to the beach, lake, mountains or just planning a staycation this Labor Day weekend, here are the billionaire's top five recommendations to read during the waning days of summer (which technically doesn't end until September 22). Gates summarizes his impressions of each book in his own words:

"How Not to Be Wrong," by Jordan Ellenberg. Ellenberg, a mathematician and writer, explains how math plays into our daily lives without our even knowing it. Each chapter starts with a subject that seems fairly straightforward — electoral politics, say, or the Massachusetts lottery — and then uses it as a jumping-off point to talk about the math involved. In some places the math gets quite complicated, but he always wraps things up by making sure you're still with him. The book's larger point is that, as Ellenberg writes, "to do mathematics is to be, at once, touched by fire and bound by reason" — and that there are ways in which we're all doing math, all the time.

"The Vital Question," by Nick Lane. Nick is one of those original thinkers who makes you say: More people should know about this guy's work. He is trying to right a scientific wrong by getting people to fully appreciate the role that energy plays in all living things. He argues that we can only understand how life began, and how living things got so complex, by understanding how energy works. It's not just theoretical; mitochondria (the power plants in our cells) could play a role in fighting cancer and malnutrition. Even if the details of Nick's work turn out to be wrong, I suspect his focus on energy will be seen as an important contribution to our understanding of where we come from.

"The Power to Compete," by Ryoichi Mikitani and Hiroshi Mikitani. I have a soft spot for Japan that dates back three decades or so, when I first traveled there for Microsoft. Today, of course, Japan is intensely interesting to anyone who follows global economics. Why were its companies — the juggernauts of the 1980s — eclipsed by competitors in South Korea and China? And can they come back? Those questions are at the heart of this series of dialogues between Ryoichi, an economist who died in 2013, and his son Hiroshi, founder of the internet company Rakuten. Although I don't agree with everything in Hiroshi's program, I think he has a number of good ideas. "The Power to Compete" is a smart look at the future of a fascinating country.

"Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind," by Yuval Noah Harari. Both Melinda and I read this one, and it has sparked lots of great conversations at our dinner table. Harari takes on a daunting challenge: to tell the entire history of the human race in just 400 pages. He also writes about our species today and how artificial intelligence, genetic engineering and other technologies will change us in the future. Although I found things to disagree with — especially Harari's claim that humans were better off before we started farming — I would recommend "Sapiens" to anyone who's interested in the history and future of our species.

"Seveneves," by Neal Stephenson. I hadn't read any science fiction for a decade when a friend recommended this novel. I'm glad she did. The plot gets going in the first sentence, when the moon blows up. People figure out that in two years a cataclysmic meteor shower will wipe out all life on Earth, so the world unites on a plan to keep humanity going by launching as many spacecraft as possible into orbit. You might lose patience with all the information you'll get about space flight — Stephenson, who lives in Seattle, has clearly done his research — but I loved the technical details. "Seveneves" inspired me to rekindle my sci-fi habit.


Incidentally, "Seveneves" also made the cut on President Barack Obama's official reading list, which he shared on the White House website earlier this month.

The president's other picks included the Pulitzer Prize–winning memoir "Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life" by William Finnegan, "The Underground Railroad," by Colson Whitehead, "H Is for Hawk" by Helen Macdonald and "The Girl on the Train" by Paula Hawkins.