If you’re looking for books that will help you lead a smarter, healthier, more successful life, you couldn’t do better than taking a cue from the bookshelf of Bill Gates.
Bill Gates is a famously avid reader, reading about 50 books a year and publishing two blog posts a year dedicated to the ones he thinks everyone should read. The eclectic list ranges from novels and memoirs to tomes on science, education, international development, and history. Check out some of his favorite books here.
Don’t have as much time as Bill Gates to read? That’s where Shortform comes in. With Shortform, you can get the key lessons from the best nonfiction books in minutes, not in hours. Our experts condense the key lessons from recommended books like these into an efficient summary. Check out our high-quality summaries of these 14 books to see if you can learn more quickly.
1. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari
AUTHOR: Yuval Noah Harari
In Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari uses concepts from biology, history, and economics to tell the story of us, Homo sapiens. We start 2.5 million years ago, when Sapiens make their historical entrance, and end in the future, when the creation of an artificially created superhuman race may mark the end of the Sapiens species. Along the way, we learn how our ability to create imagined realities led to our dominance over other species. We watch as the Agricultural Revolution, the Scientific Revolution, imperialism, capitalism, and the Industrial Revolution change our species in lasting, and not always positive, ways.
Ultimately, we’re left with one question: As we design our future, who do we want to become? Asking the right questions may be more important than finding the right answers. Read this book to explore our history as a species—in doing so, you’ll see today’s world in an entirely new way.
Gates was eager for his wife to read Sapiens as well, so they could discuss its theories. He writes, “I would recommend this book to anyone interested in a fun, engaging look at early human history….Harari tells our history in such an approachable way that you’ll have a hard time putting it down.”
2. The Sixth Extinction, by Elizabeth Kolbert
TITLE: The Sixth Extinction
AUTHOR: Elizabeth Kolbert
In The Sixth Extinction, journalist Elizbeth Kolbert argues that by drastically changing the shape of the earth and the composition of the atmosphere, humans have set in motion a sixth mass extinction that may one day be our undoing. The book revisits five previous mass extinction events spanning five hundred million years and compares them to the rapid, widespread extinctions underway today of a range of species including frogs, corals, birds, and rhinos.
These extinctions are a consequence of human-created global warming and ocean acidification, the destruction and fragmentation of forests, and our spread of invasive species around the world. What’s more, these actions will determine the course of life on the planet long after our species is gone.
Gates says of author Kolbert, “Unlike a lot of people who write about the environment, Kolbert doesn’t resort to hype. She just lays out the facts and wraps them in memorable anecdotes. It’s a sobering but engaging and informative read.”
3. Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World—and Why Things Are Better Than You Think, by Hans Rosling, Ola Rosling, and Anna Rosling Rӧnnlund
AUTHOR: Hans Rosling
Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World—And Why Things Are Better Than You Think explores the misconceptions that color our view of the world. Whether it’s global poverty, epidemics, war, or terrorism, we tend to have a dramatic, negative view of the world: that things are worse than they’ve ever been and they’re getting worse all the time.
But this view is wrong. By almost any measure, there’s never been a better time to be alive than right now. The book walks us through ten instincts that distort how we understand global problems, and offers solutions for overcoming these instincts—turning our dramatic worldview into a factful one.
Gates says of the book, “Factfulness is one of the most educational books I’ve ever read…The framework Hans enunciates is one that took me decades of working in global development to create for myself, and I could have never expressed it in such a clear way. I’m going to try to use this model moving forward.”
4. Shoe Dog, by Phil Knight
TITLE: Shoe Dog
AUTHOR: Phil Knight
Shoe Dog is the story of how Nike was founded, from the viewpoint of Nike’s founder, Phil Knight. Nike is now a global brand – go pretty much anywhere in the world, and you’ll see someone wearing Nikes. But Shoe Dog starts you over 50 years ago in 1962, when Phil Knight is 24 years old and doesn’t know what to do with his life. You travel the next 18 years with Phil Knight, through continuous adversity, financial uncertainty, and self-doubt.
Gates says, “Shoe Dog, Phil Knight’s memoir about creating Nike, is a refreshingly honest reminder of what the path to business success really looks like.”
5. Born a Crime, by Trevor Noah
TITLE: Born a Crime
AUTHOR: Trevor Noah
Born a Crime is the story of a strong-willed black mother and her mixed-race child as they traverse life in South Africa during apartheid. When comedian Trevor Noah was born in the mid-1980s, his birth was a crime under the laws of apartheid, forbade whites and blacks from mixing and procreating. Growing up during and after apartheid, Noah struggled to understand where he belonged in this racially divided environment.
Through anecdotes from Noah and his mother’s life and details regarding the elements and consequences of apartheid, Noah provides an insider’s perspective of racism, survival, abuse, love, and the importance of heritage in a society built on difference and oppression.
Gates says of Noah, “His humor has a lightness and optimism that’s refreshing to watch. What’s most impressive is how he uses his outside perspective to his advantage.”
6. When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi
TITLE: When Breath Becomes Air
AUTHOR: Paul Kalanithi
When Breath Becomes Air is the beautiful and heart-wrenching memoir of Dr. Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgical resident diagnosed with lung cancer in the last year of his training. When the life Paul and his wife Lucy imagined for their futures ceases in the face of his diagnosis, he works to understand what his new life will look like and how long it will be. Through various treatments, his struggle to return to work, and the birth of his first and only child, Paul details his personal journey of discovering the meaning of life, death, and the thin line separating them. He explores what it means to save a life—not only his patients’, but his own, as well.
Gates says, “It’s an amazing book….In fact, I can say this is the best nonfiction story I’ve read in a long time.” “This short book has so many layers of meaning and so many interesting juxtapositions—life and death, patient and doctor, son and father, work and family, faith and reason”
7. Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell
AUTHOR: Malcolm Gladwell
No one starts with nothing. Rags-to-riches stories fool us because although they may be factually true—you may start your life poor and finish it rich—they leave out all the advantages of circumstances that contribute to success. Further, they make us believe that success is an individual achievement. But no one succeeds alone. In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell shows us that where you’re from and the opportunities you’re given matter as much as personal advantages such as talent and intelligence.
8. Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential, by Carol Dweck
AUTHOR: Carol S. Dweck
You have powerful beliefs that affect what you want in life and whether you get it. In Mindset, psychologist and researcher Carol S. Dweck argues that your mindset can determine the course of much of your life, starting as early as your preschool years.
You learn one of two mindsets from your parents, teachers, and coaches: that personal qualities such as intelligence and ability are innate and unchangeable (the fixed mindset) or that you and others can change and grow (the growth mindset). Understanding and adjusting your mindset can change your career, relationships, the way you raise your children, and your overall satisfaction in life.
Gates calls Mindset a “fascinating work” and says, “Dweck’s research had a big impact on our thinking….And in the years since, Dweck and her research have helped my foundation colleagues and me understand more about the attitudes and habits that allow some students to persevere in school despite big challenges.”
9. The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, by Atul Gawande
TITLE: The Checklist Manifesto
AUTHOR: Atul Gawande
In the 21st century, we can do extraordinary things: we can predict dangerous storms, explore distant planets, and save people from life-threatening conditions and injuries. Yet highly trained, experienced, and capable people regularly make avoidable mistakes.
In The Checklist Manifesto, Boston surgeon Atul Gawande contends the reason is that knowledge and complexity in many fields have exceeded the capacity of any individual to get everything right. Under pressure, we make simple mistakes and overlook the obvious. Drawing lessons from spectacular successes and failures in recent years, he argues that the solution is a checklist. The book builds the case for checklists and issues a plea for adopting this backstop to human fallibility.
Gates writes, “I’m fascinated by the work of Dr. Atul Gawande.”
10. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by J.D. Vance
TITLE: Hillbilly Elegy
AUTHOR: J.D. Vance
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis examines the spiritual and social decline of the Appalachian white working class through the life story of its author, JD Vance. Growing up in a post-industrial Ohio town, Vance encountered the symptoms of community and familial dysfunction—drug and alcohol abuse, unstable marriages, lack of education, and evasion of hard work—that underscore the failing values of the culture from which he came.
Although Vance eventually escapes the poverty and dysfunction of his roots, attending college and Yale Law School, he finds that even economic mobility can never permanently erase the social markers of his hillbilly upbringing.
“Hillbilly Elegy gave me new insights into poverty in America,” Gates says of this “terrific, heartbreaking book.” “As I read the book I thought about what can be done to empower and create opportunity in poor communities, rural and urban alike.”
11. Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman
TITLE: Thinking, Fast and Slow
AUTHOR: Daniel Kahneman
We’re so self-confident in our rationality that we think all our decisions are well-considered. When we choose a job, decide how to spend our time, or buy something, we think we’ve considered all the relevant factors and are making the optimal choice. In reality, our minds are riddled with biases leading to poor decision making. We ignore data that we don’t see, and we weigh evidence inappropriately.
Thinking, Fast and Slow is a masterful book on psychology and behavioral economics by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman. Learn your two systems of thinking, how you make decisions, and your greatest vulnerabilities to bad decisions.
Gates put Thinking, Fast and Slow on his list of favorite books in the summer of 2012.
12. Educated: A Memoir, by Tara Westover
AUTHOR: Tara Westover
Educated: A Memoir is Tara Westover’s autobiography. In it, she shows us her transformation from being the daughter of survivalist, fundamentalist, anti-science, anti-medicine, and anti-education parents, to becoming a Cambridge-educated historian. Westover gains the strength to break free from the ideological chains of her youth and discovers the agency to make her own choices about how she sees and experiences the world.
While it is about one individual’s journey, Educated speaks to universal themes of self-liberation, the power of education, the perils of extreme ideology, and the trauma of domestic abuse.
Gates writes, “Educated is even better than you’ve heard…It’s the kind of book that I think everyone will enjoy, no matter what genre you usually pick up.”
13. Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup, by John Carreyrou
TITLE: Bad Blood
AUTHOR: John Carreyrou
Theranos was a high-flying blood test startup. Founded in 2003 by 19-year old Stanford dropout Elizabeth Holmes, Theranos raised over $700 million in investment at a $9 billion valuation. The problem? It was all fake.
What led professional investors, Walgreens, and luminaries like Henry Kissinger to be blind-sided by Theranos’s deception? Learn about the rise and fall of this cautionary startup and the psychological biases at play.
14. Why We Sleep, by Matthew Walker
TITLE: Why We Sleep
AUTHOR: Matthew Walker
You’re probably getting less sleep than you should be. Many people are more chronically sleep-deprived than they realize, and the punishments for this are severe – reduced productivity and happiness, and increased risk of a panel of diseases. Why We Sleep discusses how sleep happens, its major benefits, and the best ways to get better sleep.
Gates says of Why We Sleep, “Now that I’ve read Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep, I realize that my all-nighters, combined with almost never getting eight hours of sleep, took a big toll. The book was recommended to me by my daughter Jenn and John Doerr….Why We Sleep is an important and fascinating book.”