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Bill Gates solves your gift problems: Here are his top 5 books for the holidays

From a new history of the U.S. to a black couple in Atlanta wrapped up in the criminal justice system, here are some picks from the billionaire philanthropist.

Bill Gates solves your gift problems: Here are his top 5 books for the holidays
[Photo: courtesy Gates Notes]

Bill Gates says he reads around 50 books every year—when he isn’t working to end malaria and malnutrition or, say, reinvent the toilet—and each year, he also chooses a handful of the most interesting books to recommend. Here are Gates’ five top choices for the end of the year.

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[Photo: courtesy Gates Notes]

These Truths: A History of the United States, by Jill Lepore

Spanning centuries of American history, this book “is the most honest account of the American story I’ve ever read, and one of the most beautifully written,” Gates writes in a blog post. Lepore, a history professor at Harvard and New Yorker contributor, writes about basic contradictions like the fact that America was founded on principles of freedom while using slaves; many slaves fought for the British because they recognized that they had a better chance of freedom if the British won. The book shares many little-known facts, Gates says; for example, between 1830 and 1860, there were more than 100 violent incidents between Congressmen. “It’s a good reminder that there’s a lot more to American history than most of us learn in school,” Gates writes. “These truths are ones we all need to hear.”

[Photo: courtesy Gates Notes]

Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams, by Matthew Walker

“Back in my early Microsoft days, I routinely pulled all-nighters when we had to deliver a piece of software,” Gates writes. Now, he says, he’s more aware of the toll of a lack of sleep. Walker, a sleep researcher at the University of California-Berkeley, outlines the effects of neglecting sleep on your memory and creativity, heart and brain health, immune system, and lifespan. Gates is skeptical of some of the claims, such as a link between too little sleep and Alzheimer’s disease, which he says isn’t yet proven. But he calls the book fascinating—and says that anyone who is convinced that they can survive on little sleep is wrong.

[Photo: courtesy Gates Notes]

Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities, by Vaclav Smil

Gates, who says that he waits for new Vaclav Smil books the way that some people wait for new Star Wars movies, has recommended other Smil books in the past. The latest, at 500 pages, is a wide-ranging look at how growth works, from living systems to the adoption of technology to civilizations. Smil talks about the limits on growth and the need for radical change in how humans treat the environment. “I don’t agree with all of his analysis,” Gates writes. “In particular, I’m more optimistic than he is about the degree to which today’s renewable energy technologies can be deployed, and the pace at which scientists and engineers will develop new clean sources.” But he says that the book is a “brilliant synthesis” of a complex subject.

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[Photo: courtesy Gates Notes]

Prepared: What Kids Need for a Fulfilled Life, by Diane Tavenner

This book tells the story of Summit Public Schools, a group of charter schools founded to reinvent the standard classroom experience. Tavenner, the founder and CEO of the schools, uses a model of self-directed learning—students set their own learning goals and judge their own performance. Instead of a focus on test scores, they learn through hands-on, real-world projects. They also have ongoing meetings with mentors. “A few years ago, I had the chance to visit one of the Summit schools to see how Diane had turned this vision into reality,” Gates writes. “I was blown away. It was unlike any school I had visited before.” (Gates has spent many hundreds of millions on efforts to change education in the U.S., with complicated results.) In the book, Tavenner shares advice for students based on lessons from the schools.

[Photo: courtesy Gates Notes]
An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones

This novel, which Gates says was recommended by his one of his daughters, talks about what happens to a black couple in Atlanta when the husband, Roy, is falsely accused of rape and goes to prison for 12 years. The marriage doesn’t survive. “An American Marriage is fundamentally a story about how incarceration hurts more than just the person locked up,” Gates writes. “It’s also a reminder of how draconian our criminal justice system can be—especially for black men like Roy. Once you get sucked into that system, you’re marked for life. Everything you were or had can disappear while you’re in prison.” It’s not an easy read, he says, but “if you’re looking for something thought-provoking to read this winter, you should add this one to your list.”

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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