Here’s Bill Gates’s 2017 Holiday Reading List

Five books–from urban poverty to the history of energy–that the philanthropist says you should be reading this winter.

Here’s Bill Gates’s 2017 Holiday Reading List

Bill Gates just released his 2017 holiday reading list, part of a semi-annual effort to push the public toward five books that might expand how they think or feel. Of course, showing off his personal library gives us a chance to read between the lines about the tech mogul-turned-billionaire philanthropist’s own priorities.


Gates has posted his choices on his Gates Notes blog, along with a preamble about other “books on a bunch of diverse subjects” that were great but excluded this year. Consider this the honorable mention section: It covers topics like the rise of ISIS, mental illness as a main plot point, and how racial segregation developed, in case you think his limited selection is out of touch. (He also made sure to include one female author after an all-male-author list a few years ago; though 20% could be better.)

For the top five, he offers an almost cozy endorsement. “If you’re looking to curl up by the fireplace with a great read this holiday season, you can’t go wrong with one of these,” he writes. Maybe serious philosophical and scientific concepts make good bedfellows. Here’s the list:

The Best We Could Do, by Thi Bui

In a way, this graphic novel and personal memoir is a good proxy for understanding the heartbreak and challenges of the current refugee crisis through a different historical lens. “The author’s family fled Vietnam in 1978,” Gates writes. “After giving birth to her own child, she decides to learn more about her parents’ experiences growing up in a country torn apart by foreign occupiers.” Buy it here.

[Cover Image: Crown Publishing]

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Matthew Desmond

“If you want a good understanding of how the issues that cause poverty are intertwined, you should read this book about the eviction crisis in Milwaukee,” Gates writes. Desmond, a sociologist from Princeton (and Gates Foundation grantee), spent 18 months living alongside residents in two impoverished areas of that city–one mostly black, and the other white. The book won a Pulitzer. Buy it here.

[Cover Image: Blue Rider Press]

Believe Me: A Memoir of Love, Death, and Jazz Chickens, by Eddie Izzard

This book serves as Gates’s endorsement of strong work ethic. “Izzard’s personal story is fascinating: He survived a difficult childhood and worked relentlessly to overcome his lack of natural talent and become an international star,” he writes. But it’s also a funny book by a talented comedian, and a moving story about coming out as transgender. Buy it here.

[Cover Image: Grove Atlantic][Cover Image: Grove Atlantic]

The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen

As ever-more countries devolve into nationalistic, isolationist behavior, this work of historical fiction uses the Vietnam War as another parable: It’s a spy thriller featuring a double-agent that explores the humanity of everyone involved in that conflict. The author “tackles the role of individual morality in a time of war,” writes Gates. This one also won a Pulitzer. Buy it here.

[Cover Image: MIT Press]

Energy and Civilization: A History, by Vaclav Smil

Modern society has been shaped by centuries of breakthroughs in energy creation and transfer, enabling plenty of comfy, well-lit spaces, enough to eat, and ways to zip between them. Smil, a professor emeritus at the University of Manitoba, spells out how that happened–“from the era of donkey-powered mills to today’s quest for renewable energy,” Gates writes. This should make the chase for a cheap, clean fuel for the developing world feel ever more pressing. Buy it here.

About the author

Ben Paynter is a senior writer at Fast Company covering social impact, the future of philanthropy, and innovative food companies. His work has appeared in Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, and the New York Times, among other places.