"Although I’m lucky that I get to meet with a lot of interesting people and visit fascinating places through my work, I still think books are the best way to explore new topics that interest you," writes Microsoft (MSFT) co-founder Bill Gates in his latest post on Gates Notes. The 62-year-old technologist, investor and philanthropist reads around 50 books a year, and every December he lists his favorites on his blog.
This year's recommendations include two novels about Vietnam, British comedian Eddie Izzard's memoir and a book that chronicles how energy shaped society. He also mentioned "Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS" by Joby Warrick, "Turtles All the Way Down" by John Green and "The Color of Law" by Richard Rothstein as titles he enjoyed. (See also: Bill Gates Lists His Favorite Books of 2016)
1. The Sympathizer – Viet Thanh Nguyen
Nguyen's debut novel about a communist double agent who has to betray those closest to him because of his political ideals won the Pulitzer Prize in the fiction category in 2016. "Most of the books I’ve read and movies I’ve seen about the Vietnam War focused on the American perspective," writes Gates. He says that his visit to Vietnam in 2006 made him realize how little he knew about the Vietnamese experience and "The Sympathizer" provides "much-needed insight into what it was like to be Vietnamese and caught between both sides."
The author's previous work includes a non-fiction book titled "Nothing Ever Dies" that looks at how the Vietnam War was remembered by different groups affected by it and demonstrates how collective memory is often shaped by biased perspectives.
2. The Best We Could Do – Thi Bui
Like Viet Thanh Nguyen, Thi Bui was born in Vietnam and raised in the U.S. by refugees who fled the conflict. The autobiographical, graphic novel explores how the lives of her parents were impacted by the presence of first the French and then the American forces in their home country. It has been compared with Art Spiegelman's acclaimed graphic novel, Maus.
After reading "The Sympathizer," Gates was eager to read more books about the Vietnamese perspective. He says, "It was a completely horrific situation for the people who lived there, many of whom weren’t combatants on either side. In different ways, "The Best We Could Do" and "The Sympathizer" are cautionary tales about the collateral damage of war."
3. Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City – Matthew Desmond
The richest man in the world has always insisted that it is systemic issues that trap communities in poverty. A child who is malnourished is not developing his body or his brain, Gates said speaking with CNBC in May. He added that healthcare, education and opportunity help people escape the poverty trap.
"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," he wrote about Matthew Desmond's Pulitzer Prize-winning book about how difficult it is for poor families to keep a roof above their head when they spend over 50 percent on housing and a single stroke of bad luck can force them on to the street. Desmond demonstrates how an eviction has a domino effect as what follows is often the loss of pay or jobs, moves to dangerous neighborhoods and shelters and instability that brings on depression.
4.Energy and Civilization: A History – Vaclav Smil.
Smil is one of Gates's favorite authors and in this book he looks at humanity's "energy eras" and traces in detail the history of how energy shaped society and spurred progress. He explains that once human beings moved from hunting and gathering to farming, it paved the way for them to develop new ways of harnessing energy to increase production.
Gates says he agrees with Smil's thesis that an increase in energy use drives economic growth, and that's why he is investing in clean energy. He also gave us a hint about what may be on next year's list: "Smil told me that his next book is going to be about growth—everything from crops and babies to empires and economies. The truth is, I’d read just about any topic he found interesting and wanted to dissect. But growth sounds like a perfect topic for him. I’m looking forward to it already."
5. Believe Me: A Memoir of Love, Death, and Jazz Chickens – Eddie Izzard
Bill Gates calls British comedian Eddie Izzard "a comic genius" and says he has been a big fan for years, but only after he picked up his autobiography did he realize how much the two share in common. It's apparent from his review that it's Gates's fondness and admiration for the man that made the book more enjoyable to him. He even says he's not sure he would recommend it to someone who hasn't seen Izzard perform before.
It is Izzard's drive despite his lack of natural talent that also captivates him. He writes, "Eddie has the growth mindset in spades. Being lousy at something doesn’t stop him from doing it. In fact, it often has the opposite effect, driving him to work at it until he is no longer terrified of it."