Executive Book Club

The 5 books Bill Gates recommends you read this holiday season

In this screengrab, Bill Gates speaks during All In WA: A Concert For COVID-19 Relief on June 24, 2020 in Washington.
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Bill Gates released his annual holiday book list on Tuesday, with recommendations of books he read throughout the year.

Although this is a tradition for Gates, this year was a "lousy" one, he wrote in his blog post, which influenced his 2020 picks.

"In tough times—and there's no doubt that 2020 qualifies as tough times—those of us who love to read turn to all kinds of different books," he wrote. "As a result, I read a wide range of books, and a lot of excellent ones."

Here are five books Gates recommends to "finish the year on a good note."

'The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness'

By Michelle Alexander

This year, Gates "sometimes chose to go deeper on a difficult subject," he said, "like the injustices that underlie this year's Black Lives Matter protests" after the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis.

"Like many white people, I've tried to deepen my understanding of systemic racism in recent months," Gates said. "Alexander's book offers an eye-opening look into how the criminal justice system unfairly targets communities of color, and especially Black communities."

The book, "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness," was written in 2010. It's about racism, the criminal justice system and "it's especially good at explaining the history and the numbers behind mass incarceration," Gates said.

Although he was familiar with "some of the data" around mass incarceration, Alexander "really helps put it in context," he said. "I finished the book more convinced than ever that we need a more just approach to sentencing and more investment in communities of color."

'Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World'

By David Epstein

"In this fascinating book, [Epstein] argues that although the world seems to demand more and more specialization—in your career, for example—what we actually need is more people 'who start broad and embrace diverse experiences and perspectives while they progress,'" Gates said.

The book, "Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World," looks at "the world's most successful" people and finds the common traits between them, according to the book's synopsis.

"His examples run from Roger Federer to Charles Darwin to Cold War-era experts on Soviet affairs," Gates wrote in his GatesNotes blog post. In fact, "I think his ideas even help explain some of Microsoft's success, because we hired people who had real breadth within their field and across domains."

Epstein, a former science and investigative reporter at ProPublica and a former writer at Sports Illustrated, has also given TED talks, which grabbed Gates' attention: "I started following Epstein's work after watching his fantastic 2014 TED talk on sports performance," he said.

"If you're a generalist who has ever felt overshadowed by your specialist colleagues, this book is for you," Gates wrote.

'The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz'

By Erik Larson

"Sometimes history books end up feeling more relevant than their authors could have imagined. That's the case with this brilliant account of the years 1940 and 1941, when English citizens spent almost every night huddled in basements and Tube stations as Germany tried to bomb them into submission," Gates said of "The Splendid and the Vile," which was published in February.

The book tells the story of the Blitz and profiles British leaders of the time, like Winston Churchill, he said. "Larson gives you a vivid sense of what life was like for average citizens during this awful period."

"The fear and anxiety they felt—while much more severe than what we're experiencing with COVID-19—sounded familiar," Gates wrote.

Gates previously praised the book in July and in November.

"Its scope is too narrow to be the only book you ever read on World War II, but it's a great addition to the literature focused on that tragic period," he wrote in his post about holiday books.

'The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War'

By Ben Macintyre

When Gates "needed a change of pace," he read "something lighter at the end of the day," he said – one being "The Spy and the Traitor," which published in 2018.

"This nonfiction account focuses on Oleg Gordievsky, a KGB officer who became a double agent for the British, and Aldrich Ames, the American turncoat who likely betrayed him," Gates said of the book. "Macintyre's retelling of their stories comes not only from Western sources (including Gordievsky himself) but also from the Russian perspective."

Gates described it as "every bit as exciting as my favorite spy novels."

'Breath from Salt: A Deadly Genetic Disease, a New Era in Science, and the Patients and Families Who Changed Medicine Forever'

By Bijal P. Trivedi

"Breath from Salt," a book about the genetic disease cystic fibrosis, "is truly uplifting," Gates said.

"It documents a story of remarkable scientific innovation and how it has improved the lives of almost all cystic fibrosis patients and their families."

Gates personally connected with the book, "because I know families who've benefited from the new medicines described in this book. This story is especially meaningful to me.

"I suspect we'll see many more books like this in the coming years, as biomedical miracles emerge from labs at an ever-greater pace," he wrote.

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