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Bill Gates’s favorite reads of 2020: wide-ranging books on science, history and social justice


Bill Gates is out with his annual list of best reads, and as usual it’s an eclectic bunch.

That fits with the theme of one of his choices — “Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World.” The book, published in 2019, argues for being a generalist and embracing different perspectives in the face of seemingly ever more specialization.

Roger Federer is one example, as he played all kinds of sports as a kid and didn’t play competitive tennis until he was a teen. Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft

and its former CEO, includes his own childhood mix of late-night coding and wide-ranging reading interests as another.

“I believe that one of the key reasons Microsoft took off is because we thought more broadly than other startups of that era,” he writes. “We hired not just brilliant coders but people who had real breadth within their field and across domains. I discovered that these team members were the most curious and had the deepest mental models.”

Few of us have jobs with only repetitive patterns and clearly defined solutions, making this a crucial attribute for breakthroughs in all fields. David Epstein, the book’s author, notes that great innovators can connect information from many sources.

Gates’s takeaway: “If you’re enthusiastic about a hyperspecialized field like molecular biology or quantum physics, go for it. Just give yourself some room to explore what your friends and colleagues in other fields are learning.”

Here are his other reading recommendations. Gates previously has included a novel in his annual lists of favorite reads, but the 2020 collection is all nonfiction.

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

Gates says he picked up this book by Michelle Alexander, published in 2010, as part of his own effort to deepen his understanding of systemic racism and calls it “an eye-opening look into how the criminal justice system unfairly targets communities of color,” especially through the War on Drugs.

The 10th-anniversary edition was published before this summer’s Black Lives Matter protest in the wake of the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor killings, and Gates is looking for more of her insights.

“She’s so good at explaining the historical context behind the injustices that Black people experience every day, and I am eager to hear her thoughts on how this year might have moved us closer to a more equal society,” he writes.   

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

Gates calls this 2020 bestseller by Erik Larson (the author of the bestselling “The Devil in the White City”) “surprisingly relevant for these times.” Germany’s Blitzkrieg — seemingly nightly bombing raids — killed 44,652 people as the Nazis tried to add Great Britain to its list of defeated nations in 1940. “The fear and anxiety they felt — while much more severe than what we’re experiencing with COVID-19 — sounded familiar,” Gates observes.

Larson — and Gates — highlight Prime Minister Winston’s Churchill’s skills: his words that rallied Britain, his round-the-clock workload and attention to details, and his willingness to put himself in harm’s way.

The book, Gates adds, “gives the reader a ‘you are there’ sense of the intensity of Churchill’s work with his team on life-and-death challenges — and solving them at a pace I found to be mind-blowing.” 

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

Who knew that the Soviet Union in 1983 thought the West was preparing to launch a nuclear attack?

This 2018 book by Ben Macintyre focuses on two spies: a double agent named Oleg Gordievsky who told his British handlers that NATO’s war games were being badly misinterpreted, and Aldrich Ames, the CIA agent who likely betrayed him. Gordievsky narrowly escaped capture and now lives under witness protection in the U.K. He spoke to Macintyre, who also relied on Russian sources for the book.

Gates calls this book “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”

This book has a more personal connection. Gates says he invested $20 million in a research project to help develop drugs to fight cystic fibrosis in 1999 at the urging of a Microsoft colleague whose two children had this lung disease.

In detailing the scientific breakthroughs, author Bijal P. Trivedi “leads you on a tour through the ups and downs of the discovery process,” Gates writes. “She gives it life-and-death urgency and emotion.”

He acknowledges the book, published in September, might be too detailed for some, but he calls it inspiring and “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.” 

More Bill Gates book recommendations:

Read like Bill Gates: His 5 picks of 2019

Bill Gates promises his summer book picks are (mostly) quick reads

Bill Gates says these five books ‘made me question my own thinking’

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