Bill Gates’ annual summer reading list has a theme for 2021: “the complicated relationship between humanity and nature,” he writes in a blog post announcing the list, released Monday.
“Maybe it’s because everyone’s lives have been upended by a virus,” Gates writes. “Or maybe it’s because I’ve spent the last couple months talking about what we need to do to avoid a climate disaster.”
Indeed, in February, Gates published “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need,” emphasizing the urgency of climate change and offering a blueprint for how to address the problem.
“Whatever the reason, most of the books on my summer reading list this year touch on what happens when people come into conflict with the world around them,” Gates writes.
“I’ve included a look at how researchers are trying to undo damage done to the planet by humans, a deep dive about how your body keeps you safe from microscopic invaders, a president’s memoir that addresses the fallout from an oil spill, and a novel about a group of ordinary people fighting to save the trees. (There’s also a fascinating look at the downfall of one of America’s greatest companies.)”
Here are the five books Gates recommends for summer reading.
By Elizabeth Kolbert
Author Elizabeth Kolbert is a Pulitzer Prize winning staff writer at The New Yorker and this is her third book after Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change and The Sixth Extinction. With this book, Kolbert takes a look at whether human innovations can be the salvation for the planet they have damaged.
Kolbert looks at issues like saving the coral reefs, gene editing and geoengineering, which involves making temporary changes to the atmosphere or oceans in order to control the temperature of the earth.
“I’m glad that smart writers like Elizabeth are reminding us of the risks of trying to intervene in nature. But I wish she had also explored whether the risks are worth taking, or what the alternatives might be,” Gates writes in his review of the book.
But Gates says he is likely “more of an optimist” than Kolbert. “I don’t think it’s inevitable that humans will keep degrading the environment forever. As the standard of living rises, population growth levels off and people start devoting resources to preserving and cleaning up the environment,” Gates writes. “We’re also developing new ways of understanding the impact we have on nature—including computer models that can predict how mosquito populations will respond to various attempts to kill them off.”
By Barack Obama
Gates admires former president Barack Obama’s memoir for its deftness and vulnerability.
“You have to be a pretty self-aware person to write a candid autobiography—something that politicians aren’t exactly known for. Fortunately, President Obama isn’t like most politicians,” Gates writes in his review. “A Promised Land is a refreshingly honest book. He isn’t trying to sell himself to you or claim he didn’t make mistakes. It’s a terrific read, no matter what your politics are.”
The tome goes through Obama’s life through the 2011 operation that killed Osama bin Laden. A second volume is still coming.
“Obama makes it clear the positives of the job—especially the opportunity to make lives better— outweigh the negatives,” Gates writes. “But overall, the memoir left me with a surprisingly melancholy impression of what it’s like to be the president. ‘Sometimes I’d fantasize about walking out the east door and down the driveway, past the guardhouse and wrought-iron gates, to lose myself in crowded streets and reenter the life I’d once known,’ he writes.”
By Thomas Gryta andTed Mann
“GE is a mythic corporation,” Gates writes. “When GE started using Microsoft software in our early days, that gave us a huge boost in the market, because GE was such a bellwether company.”
“My first big takeaway is that one of GE’s greatest apparent strengths was actually one of its greatest weaknesses,” Gates writes. “For many years, investors loved GE’s stock because the GE management team always ‘made their numbers’—that is, the company produced earnings per share at least as large as what Wall Street analysts predicted.”
But there was a downside. “It turns out that culture of making the numbers at all costs gave rise to ‘success theater’ and “chasing earnings,'” Gates writes. “In Gryta and Mann’s words, ‘Problems [were] hidden for the sake of preserving performance, thus allowing small problems to become big problems before they were detected.'”
Gates also learned GE was trying to do too much.
“My second big takeaway from Lights Out is that GE didn’t have the right talent and systems to bundle together a dizzying array of unrelated businesses—including moviemaking, insurance, plastics, and nuclear power plants—and manage them well,” Gates writes.
“Investors bought into the notion that the company’s world-renowned training made it better at managing things than anyone else, and that GE could produce consistent profits even in highly cyclical markets. And GE successfully persuaded people that its generalists could avoid the pitfalls that had tripped up big conglomerates in the past,” Gates says. “In reality, those generalists often didn’t understand the specifics of the industries they had to manage and couldn’t navigate trends in their industries.”
By Richard Powers
“The Overstory,” which won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in fiction, is an ode to trees by way of nine stories of characters whose lives are in one way or another affected by them.
“The book made me want to learn more about trees,” Gates writes in his review. “You don’t need any special knowledge to follow the story, but it left me super curious about the subject. There’s a certain elegance to how trees fit into their ecosystems. It’s amazing that they live for so long—the oldest tree in the world is over 4,800 years old!—despite being stationary.”
Narratively, “The Overstory” is different from other fiction books.
“This isn’t a book where everything gets tied up with a bow. Some of the characters meet up with each other, and others have totally separate stories,” Gates writes. “In the end, it’s not clear whether you’re supposed to see their actions as morally right or just kind of crazy. (You don’t even find out whether one of the main characters lives or dies.)”
By Matt Richtel
Written by Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist Matt Richtel, “An Elegant Defense” is a book about the human immune system. It was written and published before the coronavirus pandemic, but provides good context for understanding it, Gates says.
Richtel tells the story of the immune system via “the tales of four real people whose health challenges illustrate the immune system’s features and bugs,” Gates writes.
“The most poignant of these is the story of Richtel’s lifelong friend Jason Greenstein, a traveling salesman who was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma,” he says. Gates points out its the same disease that killed his friend Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen in 2018.
In addition to describing the stories of immune system irregularities, Richtel also explains how certain treatments work.
“In the course of telling the story of his friend Jason Greenstein’s cancer, Richtel describes effective new treatments that help our immune systems target our own cells that have gone rogue,” Gates writes. “Through the stories of lupus patient Merredith Branscombe and rheumatoid arthritis patient Linda Segre, Richtel helps us understand new drugs that tamp down the immune system for those who suffer from debilitating autoimmune disorders.”
Gates’ 2021 summer reading list was originally due to be released on May 10 but was postponed.
On May 3, Gates and Melinda French Gates announced they were divorcing. At the time, reports exposed an extra-marital affair on Gates’ part, and that “[i]n some circles, Bill Gates had also developed a reputation for questionable conduct in work-related settings,” according to The New York Times, which reported that Gates had made overtures to women who worked for him, citing people with direct knowledge of the situation.
A spokesperson for Gates said about the article, “It is extremely disappointing that there have been so many untruths published about the cause, the circumstances and the timeline of Bill Gates’s divorce,” and that certain characterizations in the story are inaccurate.