“The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.”
― Albert Einstein
It’s a popular assumption (or at least should be) that while most of the population retreats to the comfort of literate depreciation, devouring B-Macs and B-movies, intellectuals feast upon gold. The written word, written well, is the gilded currency of the realm. Knowledge is power and books are brain food. To quote a little-known dwarf from fictitious history:
“A mind needs books like a sword needs a whetstone if it is to keep its edge. That is why I read so much.”
The most illustrious entrepreneurs and CEOs devour puissant semantics and syntax—communing with minds, not unlike their own. Tech titans such as Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Melinda, and Bill-fricking-Gates have openly expressed interest in books sprung from the minds of creatives like David Foster Wallace, Albert Einstein, and Leonardo Da Vinci. The best way to avoid the mistakes of the past is to examine it and the minds engrossed within it—their souls on the paper.
The wealthiest, most ambitious, and most successful (regardless of your definition) people in the world tend to read more than the average bear. Being a voracious reader, the aforementioned Microsoft magnate has admitted to a weekly reading goal of ONE—one solid behemoth of a book per week. One can imagine the tech titan settling into his reading corner the way a blacksmith goes to work, the weight of uncertainty hammering wrought pieces into something malleable. As one would imagine, his ambitious reading list is no vacation.
This past Monday, Mr. Gates announced a list of five books he wishes to read with us this summer, which he often does via his blog, Gate Notes. These are not leisure reads. All of the books seem to concern the theme of sudden change—in a world carrying the weight of uncertainty, perhaps he wishes to embrace the productivity of malleable and uncertain public opinion.
“I’ve recently found myself drawn to books about upheaval… whether it’s the Soviet Union right after the Bolshevik revolution, the United States during times of war, or a global reevaluation of our economic system.”
Coincidentally, book number one is…
1. Upheaval By Jared Diamond
Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Jared Diamond’s book analyzes problem-solving tactics to solve major national crises—similarly to the way one would deal with losing a loved one or other such personal crises. The book has been bashed by The New York Times but not by Mr. Gates. On his blog, he calls it:
A discipline-bending book that uses key principles of crisis therapy to understand what happens to nations in crisis. [Jared Diamond] reminds us that some countries have creatively solved their biggest problems. Jared doesn’t go so far as to predict that we’ll successfully address our most serious challenges, but he shows that there’s a path through crisis and that we can choose to take it.
2. Nine Pints By Rose George
Gates has invested money in diagnostic blood tests designed to detect diseases like Alzheimers and cancer; he has previously recommended books like Bad-Blood about the Silicon Valley diagnostics company Theranos and its founder, Elizabeth Holmes. He’s clearly fascinated by blood. That being said, Rose George’s book looks at the relationship business and health. The title refers to the amount of blood in the human body and Gates aim to emphasize the importance of that fact. The ways in which blood in the body affects the lives of women in particular. Gates mentions:
George writes about girls in poor countries having sex with older men simply so they can afford pads and tampons. “It’s called ‘sex for pads,’ and though it is hidden, it is common,” she writes, citing a report from a field officer in one African slum that 50 percent of the girls she encountered there had turned to prostitution to afford sanitary pads.
But I don’t want to leave you with the impression that the book is all doom and gloom. Many aspects of the book were uplifting, especially the parts that reminded me of the life-saving innovations that emerge from a better understanding of blood and its component parts. Blood tests have already made it easier and faster to diagnose diseases and predict when a pregnant woman will deliver her baby.
3. The Future of Capitalism By Paul Collier
Oxford economist Collier argues that three major battles divide contemporary society: cities vs. towns, educated vs. uneducated (at the college level), and wealthy countries vs. fragile states. Basically ruthless capitalism that focuses on profit=bad. Gates, being a billionaire philanthropist, obviously has an opinion on the matter:
I found myself agreeing with a lot of what Collier has to say. I was especially struck by the central idea of his book, that we need to strengthen the reciprocal obligations we have to each other. This won’t directly address the divides, but it will create the atmosphere where we can talk more about pragmatic solutions to them. “As we recognize new obligations to others,” Collier writes, “we build societies better able to flourish; as we neglect them we do the opposite…. To achieve the promise [of prosperity], our sense of mutual regard has to be rebuilt.
4. Presidents of War By Michael Beschloss
Bill Gates never served in the military, like most civilians, he wonders how he would fair in combat…
If I had been just a year or two older, I might have been called to serve in the Vietnam War. I think that’s one reason why I’m so interested in books and movies about the war. I always come back to the same question: If I had fought in the war, would I have shown courage under fire? Like many people who have not served, I have my doubts.
This book takes a look at how American presidents have dealt with war from the turn of the 19th century up until the 1970s (eight conflicts in total). Gates acknowledges the importance of understanding conflict from a historical point of view:
It is hard to read about today’s conflicts without thinking about how they might connect to the past and what impact they might have on the future. Presidents of War is worth reading, whether you are one of the nation’s leaders or just an armchair historian.
Gates’ reflection reminded me of Treasury of the Free World (a book that offers a glimpse into the minds of leading figures during the 1940s), where Ernest Hemingway writes:
We have come out of the time when obedience, the acceptance of discipline, intelligent courage and resolution were most important, into that more difficult time when it is a man’s duty to understand his world rather than simply fight for it.
5. A Gentleman in Moscow By Amor Towles (only work of fiction to make his list).
The novel’s synopsis is as follows (via Goodreads):
A transporting novel about a man who is ordered to spend the rest of his life inside a luxury hotel. In 1922, Count Alexander Rostov is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal and is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin. Rostov, an indomitable man of erudition and wit, has never worked a day in his life, and must now live in an attic room while some of the most tumultuous decades in Russian history are unfolding outside the hotel’s doors. Unexpectedly, his reduced circumstances provide him entry into a much larger world of emotional discovery.
Gates claims, “at one point, I got teary-eyed because one of the characters gets hurt and must go to the hospital. Melinda was a couple of chapters behind me. When she saw me crying, she became worried that a character she loved was going to die. I didn’t want to spoil anything for her, so I just had to wait until she caught up to me.”
“It gives you a sense of how political turmoil affects everyone, not just those directly involved with it.”
Closing musing: I find the number of times Bill Gates mentions his wife, Melinda in every blog post awfully endearing—I see a disjointed, yet beautiful metaphor for how, with the right amount of awareness, compassion, and patience, we can walk hand and hand into an uncertain future…
No? Ignore this bit if I completely missed the mark…
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