Smart People Are Reading These Books

Ok, so you’ve seen the nine books Bill Gates is Reading this summer. Gates has some pretty smart friends and they were kind enough to share what they were reading this summer too.

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Vinod Khosla is one of the co-founders of Sun Microsystems,and founder of the firm Khosla Ventures, which focuses on venture investments in various technology sectors, most notably clean technology.

The Score Takes Care of Itself by Bill Walsh, Steve Jamison and Craig Walsh
The Lean Startup by Eric Ries
The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gwande
The Creative Destruction of Medicine by Eric Topol
The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg
The Viral Storm by Nathan Wolfe
Willpower by Roy Baumeister & John Tierney

Here’s a list of books recommended by Vaclav Smil, who does interdisciplinary research in the fields of energy, environmental and population change, food production and nutrition, technical innovation, risk assessment, and public policy.

First belles-lettres, memoirs, narratives and stories:
This spring I re-read again Burton’s great two-volume classic of a pilgrimage to Mecca, one of the greatest, and the most informed travelogues ever written.
Another enjoyable re-read was Beerbohm’s playful Zuleika story.

New, and highly recommended, first-time readings have included von Rezzori (The Snows of Yesteryear and Memoirs of an Anti-Semite) and Crace, and Jean Renoir’s memories of his father.
Decades ago I was impressed by Caro’s first volume of Lyndon Johnson biography: this year came out a no-less readable latest instalment: The Passage of Power.

On the science/engineering side I have been reading (in preparation for my next book) many works on old and new materials:
Allwood and Cullen (Sustainable Materials with Both Eyes Open) and Berge (The Ecology of Building Materials) stand out and should be much more widely read.
I have also appreciated Eisler’s sobering history of fuel cells falling short of their repeatedly exaggerated promise.
And among the books on global economy I must recommend Nolan’s look at China and the world.

Nathan Myhrvold, was Microsoft’s Chief Technology Officer, and now follows a wide variety of interests.

A Universe from Nothing, Lawrence Krauss
Knocking on Heaven’s Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World, Lisa Randall
The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World, Daniel Yergin
The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone—Especially Ourselves, Dan Ariely

Here’s a list of books recommended by Arne Duncan, the United States Secretary of Education and CEO of Chicago Public Schools.

How Will You Measure Your Life? by Clayton Christensen
Creating Innovators by Tony Wagner

Here’s a list of books recommended by Steven Pinker, a Harvard College Professor and Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University. He conducts research on language and cognition, and his most recent book is “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.”

Peter Diamandis, Abundance – Diamandis is even more optimistic than I am, and this book will remind readers of the opportunities we have to stave off disease, hunger, and privation.

Henry Hitching, The Language Wars – a stylish history of style and usage, for those of you who have ever wondered who decides what’s correct and incorrect in the English language.

Rebecca Goldstein, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction – an exploration of the tension between faith and reason, played out in the romantic and academic fortunes of an atheist bestselling professor.

Here’s a list of books recommended by David Christian. David is a member of the Australian Academy of the Humanities who originated the “Big History” online course, which surveys the past on the largest possible scales.

Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined. A famous Harvard psychologist and linguist does something historians should have done years ago: look for serious data about changing levels of violence in human societies. And his findings are stunning and in many ways unexpected. He finds that in the last two centuries, almost all forms of violence have declined drastically. Murder rates have plummeted in most parts of the world, domestic violence has declined sharply, but even the number of military casualties has declined, partly because the huge casualties of modern warfare were dwarfed by the even larger increases in total population. This is a very optimistic book about the gains of modernity.

Anders Aslund’s trilogy: How Capitalism was Built, Russia’s Capitalist Revolution: Why Market Reform Succeeded and Democracy Failed, and How Ukrine became a Market Economy and Democracy, Peterson Institute. A fascinating, if somewhat partisan, trilogy of books on the transition from a command economy to a market economy in easter Europe after the fall of communism. Aslund’s basic conclusion is that the transition to market economies has been pretty successful in 18 out of 21 post-Communist countries; in all these countries more than 50% of GDP now comes from the private sector, and, surprisingly, growth rates in the last decade have been highest in the former Soviet countries. (The three still in an economic time warp are Belarus, Turkmenistan and Uzbekisan.) But democratisation has been far less successful. It has largely succeeded in Eastern Europe and the Baltic republics, but most of the countries that belonged to the Soviet Union still have relatively to strongly authoritarian political systems, in which parliaments exist, but have little impact on government. Corruption levels and lack of respect for the rule of law remain high in most of the former Soviet countries. He also argues strongly that ‘shock therapy’ and rapid reform were essential because slower reforms merely allowed former elites to regain power over significant parts of the economy and skim off huge ‘rents’.

Brian Cox, Jeff Forshaw, The Quantum Universe: And Why Anything that can Happen, Does and Why Does E=mc2? (And Why Should We Care?). I loved both these books, but I must confess, as a non-scientist, that I didn’t understand the argument in full. Great to give you a sense of the thinking of modern physicists, but occasionally, despite the very clear explanations of the authors, I had to let the argument flow over me and enjoy it rather than understand it! Still worth it. Each time I have a go at quantum physics or relativity I’m convinced I’ve understood them a bit better, but please don’t make me sit an exam on them!

Sam Kean, The Disappearing Spoon: And Other Trues Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements. A wonderful and entertaining book on the periodic table of elements. It’s not just on the periodic table, that wonderful document that helps us see the similarities and difference between different ‘species’ of elements. It’s also on the discoverers of the elements (some wonderful tales here) and on the elements themselves. Elements that were used as poisons, from cadmium to mercury to thallium, the most deadly of all. Or silver, a wonderful disinfectant, which the astronomer Tychoe Brahe used to have a special nose made when his own was cut off in a duel. The title comes from a spoon made from Gallium, which has such a low melting point that the spoon will disappear as you start stirring your tea.

Jan Zalasiewicz, The Earth after Us: What Legacy will Humans Leave in the Rocks? asks what traces we will leave behind us in 100 million times. As one of the pioneers of the idea that we now live in a new era, the Anthropocene, in which humans have become the most powerful force for change in the biosphere, he believes that we will indeed leave traces behind. But they won’t be easy to decipher for alien palaeontologists in the distant future. One of the strangest might be the absence of a layer of limestone as our oceans get too acidic to allow its deposition.

Here’s a book recommended by Charles Kenny, a fellow at the Center for Global Development and the New America Foundation. He’s also the author of “Getting Better: Why Global Development is Succeeding, and How We Can Improve the World Even More.”

The book I’ve just finished is a couple of years old – so out in paperback and perfect for the beach. It’s A Splendid Exchange by William Bernstein – a history of trade from pretty much the beginning to now. That makes It a global history, but one focused on some of the most colorful of the world’s explorers and some of its most interesting technology. It particularly interesting to see how much truly globe-spanning trade has turned from an activity designed to bring a few luxuries to the very rich into a vital part of preserving the quality of life of everyone planet-wide.

Here’s a list of books recommended by Atul Gawande, a surgeon and public health researcher who practices general and endocrine surgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. He’s also the author of “The Checklist Manifesto.”

My fun books for summer:
The Swerve – Stephen Greenblatt
The Green Eagle Score and The Black Ice Score – Richard Stark
Alien vs. Predator – Michael Robbins
The Kings of Cool – Don Winslow

Michael Kinsley is a columnist for Bloomberg View and for many years was the Editor of The New Republic and a columnist for the Washington Post.

There is only one novel that makes the cut for any of the other distinguished recommenders. That is Zuleika Dobson (1911), by Max Beerbohm, a parody of life at Oxford. I would only give it a B+ (although there is a very funny portrayal of an American Rhodes Scholar). Those who are willing to leave the heavy stuff to Bill and are looking for something shorter and more amusing might consider:

The Dog of the South, by Charles Portis. A first-person account of one man’s attempt to reclaim his wife by following her trail of credit-card charges.”It was cool up there and the landscape was not like the friendly earth I knew. This was the cool dry place that we hear so much about, the place where we are supposed to store things.”

Memento Mori, by Muriel Spark. A group of old people in London keep getting a mysterious phone call from someone saying, “Remember you must die.”

Scoop (or anything else) by Evelyn Waugh. This great novel of journalism has absolutely nothing to say about the profession’s current trials.

Finally, I second Bill’s recommendation of Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo, an unbelievably rich account of the life of the unbelievably poor people who live on a mountain of trash next to Mumbai’s glamorous new international airport.

Source: The Gates Notes, various pages.