The billionaire bookworm is back with his best book picks of 2018.
Bill Gates revealed his five favorite titles today, and it includes one book that is topping everyone’s best-of lists this year, including Amazon’s editors. Gates writes that he and Melinda loved Tara Westover’s Educated, her memoir about growing up in a Mormon survivalist home and going on to get her Ph.D. at Cambridge.
Gates’ other favorite books include Army of None by Paul Scharre, a “thought-provoking look at AI in warfare,” he says is “hard to put down.” And the riveting account of the Theranos scandal by John Carreyrou, Bad Blood, (also my favorite book of the year).
In true Gates fashion, there are some fun books that will teach you a thing or two. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens and Homo Deus, focuses on present-day problems. “If 2018 has left you overwhelmed by the state of the world, 21 Lessons offers a helpful framework for processing the news and thinking about the challenges we face,” Gates writes.
“I’m sure 25-year-old me would scoff at this one, but Melinda and I have gotten really into meditation lately,” he continues, for his last pick The Headspace Guide to Meditation and Mindfulness, by Andy Puddicombe. The author’s book follows his journey to becoming a Buddhist monk, and gives advice on how to meditate. Gates calls it the “perfect introduction” to those wanting to incorporate more mindfulness into their lives.
While Gates says he never sets out to make his list based on books being “giftable,” his choices this year are great choices for giving. “Plus, I think everyone could use a few more books in their lives,” he writes.
More from Gates’ reviews on his 5 favorite books for 2018:
‘Educated is even better than you’ve heard’
“I’ve always prided myself on my ability to teach myself things. Whenever I don’t know a lot about something, I’ll read a textbook or watch an online course until I do,” Gates begins in his review of Westover’s book. “I thought I was pretty good at teaching myself – until I read Tara Westover’s memoir Educated. Her ability to learn on her own blows mine right out of the water.”
In Educated, Westover recalls her childhood growing up in a Mormon survivalist home in rural Idaho, her dad convinced doomsday was coming, and prohibiting the family from interacting with outsiders. She didn’t go to school until age 17. She taught herself algebra, trig, and earned admission to Brigham Young University, eventually getting her doctorate in intellectual history from Cambridge. She was also a Gates Scholar, which Gates himself didn’t know until this book.
“Educated is an amazing story, and I get why it’s spent so much on the top of the New York Times bestseller list,” Gates writes in his review. “It reminded me in some ways of the Netflix documentary Wild, Wild Country, which I recently watched. Both explore people who remove themselves from society because they have these beliefs and knowledge that they think make them more enlightened. Their belief systems benefit from their separateness, and you’re forced to be either in or out.”
Gates calls this story of her determination to learn and build a new life “truly inspiring.”
‘I couldn’t put down this thriller with a tragic ending’
I don’t believe John Carreyrou, the investigative reporter for The Wall Street Journal who first broke the Theranos scandal, set out to write a “thriller,” but that is what he did. I found Bad Blood impossible to put down — and so did Gates.
“I don’t read a lot of page turners,” he writes in his review. “I often find myself unable to put a book down – but they’re not the kinds of books that would keep most people glued to their chairs. Still, I recently found myself reading a book so compelling that I couldn’t turn away.”
Bad Blood is the Theranos story in all its gritty detail about its ambitious young founder Elizabeth Holmes, and how her desire to lead a Silicon Valley unicorn was rife in corruption and lies. Theranos promised to revolutionize blood testing, using only a small sample to test for potentially hundreds of diseases. Holmes became a superstar in the Valley, appearing on magazine covers, national interviews, and TED talks. She even wore the uniform of a black turtleneck in a nod to her idol Steve Jobs.
At its height, Theranos was worth almost $10 billion. The hype was for nothing. The company never even had a working prototype.
“Some of the details he [Carreyrou] shares are – for lack of a better word – insane,” Gates writes, going into the ruse they played on investors and business partners, and adding that it’s a “cautionary tale about the virtues of celebrity.”
“Bad Blood tackles some serious ethical questions, but it is ultimately a thriller with a tragic ending,” he adds. “It’s a fun read full of bizarre details that will make you gasp out loud. The story almost feels too ridiculous to be real at points [no wonder Hollywood is already planning to turn it into a movie]. [Ed note: HBO also announced it is turning the story into a documentary directed by Alex Gibney]. I think it’s the perfect book to read by the fire this winter.”
‘When ballistic missiles can see’
Gates begins his review of Army of None looking back on reading a lot of sci-fi when he was a kid, many themes being the “man vs. machine” mode.
“Despite the prevalence of this theme, I don’t lose any sleep worrying about this scenario,” Gates writes. “But I do think we should spend more time thinking about the implications — positive and negative — of recent progress in artificial intelligence, machine learning, and machine vision. For example, militaries have begun to develop drones, ships, subs, tanks, munitions, and robotic troops with increasing levels of intelligence and autonomy.”
Leading us to author Scharre’s book about autonomous weapons. As a former Army ranger, with several tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, Scharre now works on policy at a think tank in D.C. Gates calls him “a great thinker who has both on-the-ground experience and a high-level view” and a “good writer.”
While the author writes that some autonomy is necessary in the military — helping ward off an attack or going into situations where humans find it hard to survive — there are the problems of weapons being used unethically. The increased adoption of AI is already a topic of healthy debate, and as a weapon, even moreso. In Gates’ review, he says that Scharre doesn’t see an international ban on AI weapons, but hopefully nations could come together to ban specific uses. It is not an easy subject that will be debated for years to come.
Gates writes, “It’s the book I had been waiting for. I can’t recommend it highly enough.”
‘A guide to worrying in the 21st century’
Gates originally reviewed 21 Lessons for the 21st Century for The New York Times, writing that there is plenty to worry about right now: “terrorism, climate change, the rise of A.I., encroachments on our privacy, even the apparent decline of international cooperation.” For many people, 2018 has been an incredibly stressful year, but can we move past the worry, or at least keep some of it at bay, so it’s not as paralyzing or polarizing as it seems?
Gate argues that historian Harari has created “a useful framework for confronting these fears.”
“The trick for putting an end to our anxieties, he suggests, is not to stop worrying,” Gates writes. “It’s to know which things to worry about, and how much to worry about them.”
A book filled with “big questions” about today’s biggest topics, Gates says this “sweeping” tome writes about how global issues — and progress — may have suffered in recent years, but we have collectively made immense progress. And while we are in an age of disinformation, and claims of “fake news” overload, we have to be aware of oversimplifying complex problems and succumbing to “groupthink.”
The author’s practical advice for slowing down and thinking? Meditation to start.
“Of course he isn’t suggesting that the world’s problems will vanish if enough of us start sitting in the lotus position and chanting om,” write Gates. “But he does insist that life in the 21st century demands mindfulness—getting to know ourselves better and seeing how we contribute to suffering in our own lives. This is easy to mock, but as someone who’s taking a course on mindfulness and meditation, I found it compelling.”
Which brings us to Gates’ next book.
‘Why I’m into meditation’
As someone who once “thought of meditation as a woo-woo thing tied somehow to reincarnation,” Gates has come around.
“I’m certainly not an expert, but I now meditate two or three times a week, for about 10 minutes each time. Melinda meditates too. Sometimes we sit to meditate together. (We use comfortable chairs; there’s no way I could do the lotus position.)”
“I now see that meditation is simply exercise for the mind, similar to the way we exercise our muscles when we play sports,” he continues. “For me, it has nothing to do with faith or mysticism. It’s about taking a few minutes out of my day, learning how to pay attention to the thoughts in my head, and gaining a little bit of distance from them.”
Gates credits The Headspace Guide to Meditation and Mindfulness author Puddicombe, also the founder of the Headspace app, for getting him into the practice. He admits that many books have made the process seem too intimidating for him until Headspace broke it down that you could achieve benefits of mindfulness with just 10 minutes a day.
“Andy [Puddicombe] has taken some heat from hard-core meditators for his low-barrier approach, but he got me to take up meditation and stick with it. I’m glad he did,” Gates writes.