Bill Gates's Beach Reading

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Looking for something to read? The Microsoft billionaire and philanthropist recently blogged his summer book list and made this jolly video:

The summer-reading video has become something of a tradition for Gates, who released similar videos in 2014 and 2015. Last summer, for instance, he recommended Should We Eat Meat?, by Vaclav Smil. Smil, a scientist and energy analyst, is the billionaire’s favorite writer. (He’s also a one-time Atlantic contributor.)

Which reminded me of The Atlantic’s long interview with Gates about energy and climate change, published last autumn. In that conversation, Gates confirmed to our former editor-in-chief, James Bennet, that he has in fact read all of Smil’s 36 published volumes. “There’s a book about the transition of the Japanese diet,” Gates said. “I don’t recommend it.”

He recommended to Bennet some other books, too—recommendations that were ultimately cut from the story for space reasons. Here is some of that material now, and two more of the billionaire’s recommendations:

“I first met Smil because he did an article about all the disasters the world might face and comparing what’s the chance of meteor versus volcanic eruption, versus an epidemic, which I thought was a brilliant kind of framework to compare those things,” Gates said. (He might have meant Smil’s Global Catastrophes and Trends: The Next 50 Years, or his article on the expense of an eventual Tokyo earthquake.) Gates then strongly recommended Why America Is Not a New Rome.

Gates also endorsed Sustainable Energy—Without the Hot Air, by David MacKay. (You can download a PDF of that book for free online.) It “does a brilliant job of really educating people—hey, this damn energy thing, where do we use it, and what is the future path for the big categories of its use,” he told Bennet. “That’s half the book.”

“And then the other half of the book is what are the sources of energy and how much can they scale up, [and] what’s the problem with them,” he said. “[MacKay] doesn’t have any bias against nuclear, for nuclear, against wind, for wind. He just says that society will balance the equation—that our energy use will equal the energy sources that we choose to employ, along with whatever greenhouse gas emissions that applies.”