View Bill Gates’ Mobile Library: The Books & Courses That Help Him Change The World

Stepping down as Microsoft’s chief executive officer in 2000 had given Bill Gates some extra time, which the autodidact immediately expended by attempting to learn… well, everything. Perhaps Gates threw himself at learning to make up for abandoning college for greater pursuits—he attended Harvard but left after two years’ study to pursue his passion for computers. Whatever his reasons, Gates has begun to assiduously learn all he can about the world, and is recording his education process for posterity on his website, The Gates Notes. As the video above explains, Microsoft’s founder has listened to hundreds of hours of university lectures from The Teaching Company (which was recently re-branded as The Great Courses); he got hooked after listening to Robert Whaples’ Modern Economic Issues and breezing through Timothy Taylor’s America and the New Global Economy. His number one pick? Big History which is taught by David Christian and, Gates says, “is still my favorite course of all. The course is so broad that it synthesizes the history of everything including the sciences into one framework.”

Wherever Gates travels, he is also eternally accompanied by his reading bag. Surprised that the herald of the digital age is packing paperbacks? Don’t be. “I’m still pretty much an old-school print guy,” Gates writes, “because I like to jot notes in the margins, but I assume I’ll move over to ebooks when annotation features get better.”

Last week, Gates showed WIRED the contents of his decidedly 20th century mobile library. The books, which Gates replenishes at an impressive rate, encompass an admirable breadth of topics. As befitting the overseer of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the majority of Gates’ reading consists of non-fiction (only Gary Shteyngart’s recent novel made the fiction cut this round). History, psychology, science, sound business counsel, sociology, economics, and history all make up the dizzying array of Gates’ everyday reading. Here is a selection from WIRED’s partial list, including Gates’ own comments on the importance of each choice:

-Feynman’s Tips on Physics by Richard Feynman– A short companion book to Richard Feynman’s classic Lectures on Physics. Always worthwhile to return to the feet of the master.

-Super Sad True Love Story: A Novel by Gary Shteyngart– I don’t read a lot of fiction, but I thought this was an interesting study of the moral implications of technology. Will technology contribute to everyone’s well-being or just make people more narcissistic?

-The Cartoon Introduction to Statistics by Grady Klein– Bought this to use with one of my kids. Helpful in explaining a complicated subject to a teenager.

-The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal by David McCullough – I read this to prepare for a family vacation to Panama. It’s pure McCullough: epic drama, political intrigue, heartbreaking defeats, and eventual triumph.

-The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker– One of the most important books I’ve read. Steven Pinker demonstrates how the world evolved to be far less violent. Counterintuitive, if you watch the news, but true.

We’ve also used the trusty Control + Scroll function to zoom in and name a few additional titles:

An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions by Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen

Engineers of Victory: The Problem Solvers Who Turned The Tide in The Second World War by Paul Kennedy

The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future by Joseph Stiglitz

Why Does College Cost So Much? By Robert Archibald and David Feldman

Mondo Agnelli: Fiat, Chrysler, and the Power of a Dynasty by Jennifer Clark

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough

The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined by Salman Khan

Far From The Tree by Andrew Solomon

For the original list, head over to WIRED. For more of Gates’ commentary, check out his site, The Gates Notes, here. You can also continue your self-education by visiting our lists of Free Online Courses, Free eBooks, Free Audio Books, Free Language Lessons, Free Textbooks, and Free MOOCs.

Ilia Blinderman is a Montreal-based culture and science writer. Follow him at @iliablinderman.



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  1. Alejandro Verde says . . . | December 9, 2013 / 1:47 pm

    This is just disgusting.

  2. Chris Lamke says . . . | December 14, 2013 / 1:40 am

    Why do you call this disgusting? I’m curious.

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