A couple of times a year, Microsoft founder and noted bibliophile Bill Gates makes a list of his favorite recent reads. This time, Gates says “In a year like this, sometimes you want to go deep on a tough issue. Other times you need a break.”
Visit GatesNotes to read Gates’ thoughts on each of his recommendations.
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
As the United States celebrated the nation’s “triumph over race” with the election of Barack Obama, the majority of young black men in major American cities were locked behind bars or labeled felons for life. Although Jim Crow laws have been wiped off the books, an astounding percentage of the African American community remains trapped in a subordinate status—much like their grandparents before them.
In this incisive critique, former litigator-turned-legal-scholar Michelle Alexander provocatively argues that we have not ended racial caste in America: we have simply redesigned it. Alexander shows that, by targeting black men and decimating communities of color, the U.S. criminal justice system functions as a contemporary system of racial control, even as it formally adheres to the principle of color blindness. The New Jim Crow challenges the civil rights community—and all of us—to place mass incarceration at the forefront of a new movement for racial justice in America.
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Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein
Plenty of experts argue that anyone who wants to develop a skill, play an instrument, or lead their field should start early, focus intensely, and rack up as many hours of deliberate practice as possible. If you dabble or delay, you’ll never catch up to the people who got a head start. But a closer look at research on the world’s top performers, from professional athletes to Nobel laureates, shows that early specialization is the exception, not the rule.
David Epstein examined the world’s most successful athletes, artists, musicians, inventors, forecasters and scientists. He discovered that in most fields—especially those that are complex and unpredictable—generalists, not specialists, are primed to excel. Generalists often find their path late, and they juggle many interests rather than focusing on one. They’re also more creative, more agile, and able to make connections their more specialized peers can’t see.
Provocative, rigorous, and engrossing, Range makes a compelling case for actively cultivating inefficiency. Failing a test is the best way to learn. Frequent quitters end up with the most fulfilling careers. The most impactful inventors cross domains rather than deepening their knowledge in a single area. As experts silo themselves further while computers master more of the skills once reserved for highly focused humans, people who think broadly and embrace diverse experiences and perspectives will increasingly thrive.
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The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson
On Winston Churchill’s first day as prime minister, Adolf Hitler invaded Holland and Belgium. Poland and Czechoslovakia had already fallen, and the Dunkirk evacuation was just two weeks away. For the next twelve months, Hitler would wage a relentless bombing campaign, killing 45,000 Britons. It was up to Churchill to hold his country together and persuade President Franklin Roosevelt that Britain was a worthy ally—and willing to fight to the end.
In The Splendid and the Vile, Erik Larson shows, in cinematic detail, how Churchill taught the British people “the art of being fearless.” It is a story of political brinkmanship, but it’s also an intimate domestic drama, set against the backdrop of Churchill’s prime-ministerial country home, Chequers; his wartime retreat, Ditchley, where he and his entourage go when the moon is brightest and the bombing threat is highest; and of course 10 Downing Street in London. Drawing on diaries, original archival documents, and once-secret intelligence reports—some released only recently—Larson provides a new lens on London’s darkest year through the day-to-day experience of Churchill and his family: his wife, Clementine; their youngest daughter, Mary, who chafes against her parents’ wartime protectiveness; their son, Randolph, and his beautiful, unhappy wife, Pamela; Pamela’s illicit lover, a dashing American emissary; and the advisers in Churchill’s “Secret Circle,” to whom he turns in the hardest moments.
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The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War by Ben Macintyre
If anyone could be considered a Russian counterpart to the infamous British double-agent Kim Philby, it was Oleg Gordievsky. The son of two KGB agents and the product of the best Soviet institutions, the savvy, sophisticated Gordievsky grew to see his nation’s communism as both criminal and philistine. He took his first posting for Russian intelligence in 1968 and eventually became the Soviet Union’s top man in London, but from 1973 on he was secretly working for MI6. For nearly a decade, as the Cold War reached its twilight, Gordievsky helped the West turn the tables on the KGB, exposing Russian spies and helping to foil countless intelligence plots, as the Soviet leadership grew increasingly paranoid at the United States’s nuclear first-strike capabilities and brought the world closer to the brink of war. Desperate to keep the circle of trust close, MI6 never revealed Gordievsky’s name to its counterparts in the CIA, which in turn grew obsessed with figuring out the identity of Britain’s obviously top-level source. Their obsession ultimately doomed Gordievsky: the CIA officer assigned to identify him was none other than Aldrich Ames, the man who would become infamous for secretly spying for the Soviets.
Unfolding the delicious three-way gamesmanship between America, Britain, and the Soviet Union, and culminating in the gripping cinematic beat-by-beat of Gordievsky’s nail-biting escape from Moscow in 1985, Ben Macintyre’s latest may be his best yet. Like the greatest novels of John le Carré, it brings readers deep into a world of treachery and betrayal, where the lines bleed between the personal and the professional, and one man’s hatred of communism had the power to change the future of nations.
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Breath from Salt: A Deadly Genetic Disease, a New Era in Science, and the Patients and Families Who Changed Medicine by Bijal P. Trivedi
In 1974, Joey O’Donnell was born with strange symptoms. His insatiable appetite, incessant vomiting, and a relentless cough—which shook his tiny, fragile body and made it difficult to draw breath—confounded doctors and caused his parents agonizing, sleepless nights. After six sickly months, his salty skin provided the critical clue: he was one of thousands of Americans with cystic fibrosis, an inherited lung disorder that would most likely kill him before his first birthday.
The gene and mutation responsible for CF were found in 1989—discoveries that promised to lead to a cure for kids like Joey. But treatments unexpectedly failed and CF was deemed incurable. It was only after the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, a grassroots organization founded by parents, formed an unprecedented partnership with a fledgling biotech company that transformative leaps in drug development were harnessed to produce groundbreaking new treatments: pills that could fix the crippled protein at the root of this deadly disease.
From science writer Bijal P. Trivedi, Breath from Salt chronicles the riveting saga of cystic fibrosis, from its ancient origins to its identification in the dank autopsy room of a hospital basement, and from the CF gene’s celebrated status as one of the first human disease genes ever discovered to the groundbreaking targeted genetic therapies that now promise to cure it.