Bill Gates: The Billionaire Book Critic


January 8, 2016

Bill Gates: The Billionaire Book Critic

Evan Thomas, the best-selling biographer of Robert F. Kennedy and Dwight D. Eisenhower and the author of a half-dozen other books, has seen those books reviewed over the years by The New Yorker, The Washington Post and The Atlantic. But with the recent publication of his latest work, “Being Nixon: A Man Divided,” he experienced for the first time a new phenomenon: the Bill Gates bump.

Bill Gates in May 2014. In his Gates Notes blog, he has reviewed books, including: “Thing Explainer,” by Randall Munroe and “The Rosie Project,” by Graeme Simsion. Just before Christmas, Mr. Thomas learned that his book had been favorably reviewed by Mr. Gates on his blog, Gates Notes.

“I’m surprised by the number of biographies I read that paint their subjects in black-and-white terms,” Mr. Gates wrote. “A classic example is former U.S. president Richard Nixon, who is too often portrayed as little more than a crook and a warmonger. So it was refreshing to see a more balanced account in ‘Being Nixon,’ by author and journalist Evan Thomas.” The review was illustrated by a photograph of the book on a desk adorned with objects from the Nixon era, like a rotary phone.

Bill Gates on Books and Blogging

Bill Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft, has emerged as a force in the publishing industry, thanks to the book reviews he posts on his blog, Gates Notes. Mr. Gates, who says he reads about 50 books a year, discussed his love of reading, how he makes his selections and what book Warren Buffett recommended. Below are excerpts from a recent email interview.

What role does reading play in your life?

It is one of the chief ways that I learn, and has been since I was a kid. These days, I also get to visit interesting places, meet with scientists and watch a lot of lectures online. But reading is still the main way that I both learn new things and test my understanding.

For example, this year I enjoyed Richard Dawkins’s “The Magic of Reality,” which explains various scientific ideas and is aimed at teenagers. Although I already understood all the concepts, Dawkins helped me think about the topics in new ways. If you can’t explain something simply, you don’t really understand it.

What made you decide to start the books blog and write reviews?

I have always loved reading and learning, so it is great if people see a book review and feel encouraged to read and share what they think online or with their friends.

It also helps to have a platform for talking about the work I’m doing, both through the foundation and separate from it, because I find people are curious about it.

How do you choose the books you read? Recommendations from family/friends/media?

It’s a mix of things. Melinda and I will sometimes exchange books we like. I also get recommendations from friends. After I finish something great, I will often try to find other books by that author or similar ones on the same subject.

Earlier this year Melinda and I saw the musical “Hamilton,” which inspired me to read Ron Chernow’s biography.

What was the process of selecting the books for the best-of-the-year list? Any tough choices?

I didn’t set out to do this intentionally, but when I looked back at the books I read this year, I realized that a lot of them touch on the theme “how things work.”Some, like Randall Munroe’s “Thing Explainer,” are written exactly for that reason. He uses diagrams paired with the most common 1,000 words in the English language to explain complicated ideas.

Other books on my list offer insights into human beings, our values, our strengths and flaws.

Is there one book that was an unexpected choice for you that you unexpectedly loved?

One of the main reasons I started my blog was to share thoughts about what I’m reading. So it is nice to see people sharing their own reactions and recommendations in the comments section of the site.

One book that was especially fun to highlight was “Business Adventures,” by John Brooks. This is the first book Warren Buffett recommended to me after we met in 1991, and it is still the best business book I have ever read. Brooks deserves to be much better known than he is.

Although he wrote in the 1960s, the issues he talks about are still relevant today. “Business Adventures” went out of print decades ago and Brooks died in 1993, but his family was nice enough to let me post one chapter called “Xerox Xerox Xerox Xerox” on my blog.

I don’t read a lot of fiction but was surprised by how much I loved the novel “The Rosie Project,” by Graeme Simsion. Melinda read it first and kept stopping to recite parts of it out loud to me. Eventually, I decided to take a look.

I started it one night at 11 p.m. and stayed up with it until 3 a.m. It is very funny, while also showing a lot of empathy for people who struggle in social situations.After I sent it and the sequel (“The Rosie Effect”) to dozens of friends and wrote about it on my blog, I heard from a lot of people who were touched by it. There is talk of turning it into a movie, which I hope happens. Rosie and Don Tillman would make a great on-screen couple.

I like highlighting the work of Vaclav Smil. He has written more than 30 books, and I have read them all. He takes on huge topics like energy or transportation and gives them a thorough examination.

Smil’s books are not for casual readers and I don’t agree with him on everything, but I like to feature his work because the world would be a better place if more people thought as rigorously and systematically as he does.

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