10 Books Bill and Melinda Gates Recommended to the TED Audience This Year

The organizers of TED asked Bill and Melinda Gates to suggest some books that attendees might enjoy. Bill picked 5 and Melinda picked five and their choices couldn’t be more different or interesting. Gates even picked one from his favourite living author.

This isn’t the first time I’ve cherry picked book ideas from Gates. I ordered a few of his 7 best books of 2013 and 2012. The diversity of what he reads is mind-boggling. And, largely because of Gates, I’ve started reading Vaclav Smil.

Bill Recommends

“Each of the books on my list,” Gates said, “had a big impact on my thinking and really informed my work. Four of them are quite optimistic about our ability to make the world a better place. The Vaclav Smil book makes clear that if we hope to address climate change, we’ll have to transform our energy infrastructure—and that will be harder than most of us might realize.”

The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker’s carefully researched study stands out as one of the most important books I’ve ever read. Pinker paints a remarkable picture showing that the world has evolved over time to be a far less violent place than before. It offers a fresh perspective on how to achieve positive outcomes in the world. A thoroughly worthwhile read.

Getting Better by Charles Kenny

I know from personal experience that stepping into the public square to announce that foreign aid is important and effective can be lonely work. Charles Kenny’s elegant book on the impact of aid carefully documents how the quality of life—even in the world’s poorest countries—has improved dramatically over the past several decades. With reams of solid data to support his case, he argues that governments and aid agencies have played an important role in this progress.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

Katherine Boo spent three years getting to know the people of Annawadi, a slum of about 3,000 people on the edge of a sewage-filled lake in India’s largest city. Her book is a poignant reminder of how much more work needs to be done to address the inequities in the world. But it’s also an uplifting story of people striving to make a life for themselves, sacrificing for their families, and in their own way, being innovative and entrepreneurial in creating a vibrant local economy.

The Man Who Fed the World by Leon Hesser

Norm Borlaug is one of my heroes—and Leon Hesser’s biography is a fascinating account of Borlaug’s life and accomplishments. This is a story of genius, self-sacrifice, and determination. Borlaug was a remarkable scientist and humanitarian whose work in agriculture is rightfully credited with saving the lives of over a billion people.

Energy Myths and Realities by Vaclav Smil

Vaclav Smil is probably my favorite living author. If you care about energy issues, I recommend this volume, though its unvarnished look at the realities of energy use and infrastructure may be disconcerting to anyone who thinks solving our energy problems will be easy. Smil provides a rational framework for evaluating energy promises and important lessons to keep in mind if we’re to avert the looming climate crisis.

Melinda Recommends

The note Melinda sent to TED along with her selections read: “Those of us interested in development spend a lot of time thinking about what it takes to translate a great idea into results on the ground. Each of these books has helped deepen my understanding of how the global development community can drive and sustain meaningful change, even in the face of difficult circumstances. Together, they paint a portrait of a world where progress is achievable if we work together and learn from each other.”

The Last Hunger Season by Roger Thurow

Roger Thurow movingly chronicles the lives of four Kenyan farmers as they struggle to support their families through the wanjala, Swahili for “hunger season.” This book is both about the importance of investing in Africa’s smallholder farmers and a compelling blueprint for doing it effectively. Thurow shows how, together, we can make this wanjala the last one.

However Long the Night by Aimee Molloy

This is the story of an extraordinary woman: Molly Melching. For more than 40 years, Molly has worked in Senegalese communities to help improve lives for some of the country’s poorest people. Her success is based on her insistence on working in close partnership with local communities. That way, change is always driven from the center out, not the top down. This book reinforced my own belief that developing communities already have the potential and desire to spark the change that will lead to better lives for themselves and their families.

In the Company of the Poor by Paul Farmer and Gustavo Gutierrez

Paul Farmer is longtime friend of mine, and through these pages, you can hear his voice and feel his deep personal connection to improving lives for people who are too often ignored. You also get a sense of his (and Father Gutierrez’s) intellectual commitment to changing the systems that lead to poverty, so that their work has a permanent impact.

Change by Design by Tim Brown

Design thinking is a model of problem solving that could have huge implications for global health and development. It’s an approach that recognizes that the people facing challenges have the best understanding of what solutions will really work for them—so we need to invite them to participate in the design process as well. So many of the women and families I meet already have the potential to lift themselves out of poverty. Design thinking reminds us that to unlock this opportunity, we have to first enlist their help.

Mighty Be Our Powers by Leymah Gbowee

In 2011, Leymah Gbowee became a global figure when she won a Nobel Prize for launching a grassroots women’s movement that led to peace in Liberia. This is an amazing tale of a group of women coming together to change the course of a country’s history—and it’s also the inspiring story of how Leymah overcame her own doubts and fears and found the courage to lead them.

Ben Horowitz: 5 Reads

Ben Horowitz is the co-founder of Andreessen Horowitz, the Silicon Valley venture firm that invested in Facebook, Twitter, Skype, and Foursquare. Of course, they’ve backed a lot of failures too. But suffice to say that few people think about competition as much as Horowitz so I was interested in seeing his reading list.

He recommends the following reads for managers, entrepreneurs, and investors.

1. The Innovator’s Dilemma – Clayton Christensen
Interestingly this is the only business book that Steve Jobs liked. In his biography of Jobs, Walter Isaacson wrote that it “deeply influenced” Jobs. Fittingly the book shows why and how most companies miss out on new waves of innovation — they do exactly what they are taught to do in business school.

2. The Black Jacobins – C.L.R. James
This is a powerful history of the Haitian Revolution of 1794-1803, which became the model for Third World liberation movements. A barely literate slave, Toussaint L’Ouverture, led the people of San Domingo against successive invasions by French, Spanish, and English forces. Oh yea, and in the process he helped form the first independent nation in the Caribbean.

3. Only the Paranoid Survive – Andy Grove
I read this book as part of my MBA program. It’s full of common sense, which, while I didn’t know it at the time, isn’t so common.

4. Focus – Al Ries
This is an interesting pick. Marketing “expert” Al Ries believes that focus is the answer to continued growth and prosperity. You know, the common sense approach that Apple and almost no one else seems to follow these days: focus on core products and avoid the siren song of everything else. Of course this isn’t the only way to success and lots of companies that focus fail while lots of companies that diversify succeed. Notwithstanding that, focus is the key to mindfulness.

5. My Years at GM – Alfred Sloan
This is a book that everyone talks about but few people have read. Bill Gates, who did read it, called it the best business book ever written. Peter Drucker said the same thing. A great story about how to lead, organize, and communicate things at a large organization.

(h/t blinkist)

Bill Gates — The Seven Best Books I Read in 2013

Bill Gates presents his 7 top reads in 2013.

Commenting on the lack of novels on the list, Gates writes:

It’s not that I don’t enjoy fiction. I’ve read The Catcher in the Rye a bunch of times—it’s one of my favorite books ever (and I enjoyed Salinger, the documentary that came out this year). I did read Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, which was entertaining though it didn’t have as much science fiction as I expected.

But I read mostly nonfiction because I always want to learn more about how the world works. And reading is how I learn best.

That’s an interesting statement coming from Gates, especially in light of recent posts on using literature to study decision making under ignorance.

With that said, Gates is an excellent source of reading material for me. His top reads of 2012 led me to order Behind the Beautiful Forevers, a book I added to my antilibrary. And his summer reading list, along with the recommendations of readers, encouraged me to read The Box, a surprisingly enjoyable read on the history of the shipping container. This book shows up again on the end of year list of his top reads.

Here are his picks, in no particular order:

The Box, by Marc Levinson

“You might think you don’t want to read a whole book about shipping containers… But he makes a good case that the move to containerized shipping had an enormous impact on the global economy and changed the way the world does business. And he turns it into a very readable narrative. I won’t look at a cargo ship in quite the same way again.”

The Most Powerful Idea in the World, by William Rosen

“A bit like The Box, except it’s about steam engines… I’d wanted to know more about steam engines since the summer of 2009, when my son and I spent a lot of time hanging out at the Science Museum in London.”

Harvesting the Biosphere, by Vaclav Smil

“Here he gives as clear and as numeric a picture as is possible of how humans have altered the biosphere. The book is a bit dry and I had to look up a number of terms that were unfamiliar to me, but it tells a critical story if you care about the impact we’re having on the planet.”

The World Until Yesterday, by Jared Diamond

“Diamond finds fascinating anecdotes about what life is like for hunter-gatherers and asks which ones might apply to our modern lifestyles. He doesn’t make some grand pronouncement or romanticize tribal life. He just wants to find the best practices and share them.”

Poor Numbers, by Morten Jerven

“Jerven, an economist, spent four years digging into how African nations get their statistics and the challenges they face in turning them into GDP estimates. He makes a strong case that a lot of GDP measurements we thought were accurate are far from it.”

Why Does College Cost So Much?, by Robert B. Archibald and David H. Feldman

“The authors are good about not pointing fingers but instead talking about how America’s labor market affects the cost of college. My view is that as long as there’s a scarcity of college graduates, a college degree will be quite valuable. So people will pay more to get one. And if they will pay more, then colleges and universities — whose labor is provided mostly by people who paid a lot for their own degrees — can ask for more. Until you get an excess supply of graduates, then you don’t really get any price competition.”

The Bet, by Paul Sabin

“Sabin chronicles the public debate about whether the world is headed for an environmental catastrophe. He centers the story on Paul Ehrlich and Julian Simon, who wagered $1,000 on whether human welfare would improve or get worse over time. Without ridiculing either proponent, Sabin shows how their extreme views contributed to the polarized debate over climate change and other issues that continues today.”

Gates’ list is a happy addition to the 2013 collection of reading lists.

Not sure what to get the book worm on your list? Start here

All of the 2013 reading lists together in one shareable place. Start here if you’re still searching for the perfect gift for the book lover on your list.

Books that changed my life

Best Illustrated Children’s Books Awards for 2013

9 Brain-Building Philosophy Books That Are Actually Readable

Bill Gates’ 7 Best books of 2013

The best non-fiction books of 2013

Five Books To Read Before Your 30th Birthday

The Globe And Mail Top 10 Books for 2013

What does Bill Gates Read

Christopher Hitchens Creates a Reading List for Eight-Year-Old Girl

Five economics books for the real world.

What does Jeff Bezos read?

Bill Gates summer reading list 2013

The 2013 Farnam Street curated picks for a curious mind

Also, check out a previous year’s list of lists

Best Illustrated Books 2013

The ten winners of the New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Books Awards for 2013. The book review has an independent panel of judges that selects the books based on “artistic merit.”


Written and illustrated by Blexbolex
Translated by Claudia Z. Bedrick
280 pp. Enchanted Lion Books. $22.95. (Picture book; ages 4 and up)

Fog Island
Written and illustrated by Tomi Ungerer
48 pp. Phaidon Press. $16.95. (Picture book; ages 4 to 8)

My Brothers Book
Written and illustrated by Maurice Sendak
32 pp. Michael di Capua Books/HarperCollins Publishers. $18.95. (Picture book; ages 4 and up)

the dark
By Lemony Snicket
Illustrated by Jon Klassen
40 pp. Little, Brown & Company. $16.99. (Picture book; ages 4 to 8)

Jemmy Button
Written and illustrated by Jennifer Uman and Valerio Vidali
48 pp. Templar/Candlewick Press. $16.99. (Picture book; ages 4 to 7)

By Charlotte Dematons
56 pp. Lemniscaat. $19.95. (Picture book; ages 2 and up)

Jane the fox and Me
By Fanny Britt
Illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault
Translated by Christelle Morelli and Susan Ouriou
101 pp. Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press. $19.95. (Graphic novel; ages 10 to 14)

Written and illustrated by Brian Floca
64 pp. A Richard Jackson Book/Atheneum. $17.99. (Picture book; ages 4 to 10)

Written and illustrated by Aaron Becker
40 pp. Candlewick Press. $15.99. (Picture book; ages 4 to 8)

Written and illustrated by Kadir Nelson
40 pp. Katherine Tegen Books/HarperCollins Publishers. $17.99. (Picture book; ages 5 to 9)

Bringing you Farnam Street took thousands of dollars and nearly 1,500 hours in 2013. If you find any value in it, I’d greatly appreciate your support with a modest donation. For extra Karma points, become a member with a monthly donation.

9 Brain-Building Philosophy Books That Are Actually Readable

Ryan Holiday offers 9 awesome reads:

  1. Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
  2. Letters from a Stoic by Seneca
  3. The Moral Sayings of Publius Syrus
  4. Fragments by Heraclitus
  5. Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
  6. Essays by Montaigne
  7. Nature and Selected Essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson
  8. Essays and Aphorisms by Arthur Schopenhauer
  9. The Essential Epicurus by Epicurus

Bringing you Farnam Street took thousands of dollars and nearly 1,500 hours in 2013. If you find any value in it, I’d greatly appreciate your support with a modest donation. For extra Karma points, become a member with a monthly donation.

The best non-fiction books of 2013

Economist Tyler Cowen, who was named one of the top 100 influential thinkers by Foreign Policy magazine, offers some interesting picks:

Nothing that caught your eye? Try his 2012 list.

Bringing you Farnam Street took thousands of dollars and nearly 1,500 hours in 2013. If you find any value in it, I’d greatly appreciate your support with a modest donation. For extra Karma points, become a member with a monthly donation.

The Globe And Mail Top 10 Books

Tis the season for book lists. As an avid reader, please bear with me as I pluck out some of the better ones over the coming weeks.

Jared Bland, book editor for The Globe and Mail, picks from a bounty of exceptional new books and presents his top ten books of 2013 — “the works that asked important questions, garnered prizes and nominations, surprised and inspired us and, most simply, were just plain excellent.”


The Orenda
Boyden’s heartbreaking tale of early Canada connects three main story lines across the expanse of the war between the Huron and the Iroquois.

The Luminaries
Catton’s ambitious, Booker-winning novel of the 19th-century New Zealand gold rush is a sophisticated and surprising exercise in voice and vision.

Coady’s Giller-winning book of stories ranges wildly in style and content, but taken as a whole is an ideal introduction to one of Canada’s finest writers.

The Son
Meyer’s brilliant, bloody book tracks generations of family history in Texas, and features, in patriarch Eli McCullough, one of recent literature’s most memorable characters.

The Goldfinch
Tartt’s expansive (some say Dickensian) tale of a young man in love with a very famous painting is a piercing meditation on how we relate to the objects in our lives.


David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants
Gladwell’s latest documents ways in which successful people turn their disadvantages into advantages, resulting in an inspiring, and surprisingly moral, call to arms.

The War that Ended Peace: The Road to 1914
MacMillan, one of the world’s leading historians, offers a fresh take on the First World War, arguing that it wasn’t inevitable, as we’ve been lead to believe.

The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America
Packer, a New Yorker staff writer, offers an essential, character-driven look at contemporary America in its twin extremes of excess and decline.

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead
Facebook COO Sandberg set in motion one of the year’s central debates by arguing that women must change the way they act in the workplace in order to succeed.

The Dogs Are Eating Them Now: Our War in Afghanistan
Smith, a former Globe correspondent, documents the horrors of the Afghanistan conflict, and critically examines the difficulty of war reporting as an endeavour.