Bill Gates' summer reading list hits GE and Barack Obama

A tale about the rise and fall of General Electric made the billionaire's list

During the pandemic lockdown and now in the middle of a high-profile, very public divorce, billionaire and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates still hits the books and hopes you do as well. 

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"I hope at least one of these books sparks your interest this summer," Gates said as he rolled out his annual reading recommendations. 

"When I finish one book and am deciding what to read next, there usually isn’t always rhyme or reason to what I pick," Gates wrote in a blog post on Monday. "Sometimes I’ll read one great book and get inspired to read several more about the same subject. Other times I am eager to follow a recommendation from someone I respect." 

Gates says he has recently been drawn to books about "the complicated relationship between humanity and nature" while reflecting upon the impact of the global pandemic. "Maybe it’s because everyone’s lives have been upended by a virus," Gates writes. "Or maybe it’s because I’ve spent so much time this year talking about what we need to do to avoid a climate disaster." 

Here's the top five list…

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1. Lights Out: Pride, Delusion and the Fall of General Electric

Kicking off Gates' list is Lights Out: Pride, Delusion and the Fall of General Electric.

Lights Out: Pride, Delusion and the Fall of General Electric by Thomas Gryta and Ted Mann (Photo courtesy of Amazon)

According to Gates, Wall Street Journal reporters Thomas Gryta and Ted Mann give an "unflinching look at the mistakes and missteps made by GE’s leadership."

"GE is a mythic corporation. It was at one time the largest, most powerful company in the world," Gates writes. "When GE started using Microsoft software in our early days, that gave us a huge boost in the market, because GE was such a bellwether company."

However, he notes that the GE ended up "crashing to Earth in one of the greatest downfalls in business history."

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Gates said that his first big takeaway from Lights Out was that one of GE's greatest apparent strengths turned out to be one of its greatest weaknesses.

"For many years, investors loved GE’s stock because the GE management team always "made their numbers"—that is, the company produced earnings per share at least as large as what Wall Street analysts predicted," Gates explains. "It turns out that culture of making the numbers at all costs gave rise to "success theater" and "chasing earnings."

His other takeaway was that GE "did not have the right talent and systems to bundle together a dizzying array of unrelated businesses…and manage them well."

Ultimately, he believes Lights Out is an essential read for anyone in a leadership role who wants to avoid the mistakes made by GE.

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2. Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future

For an "enjoyable read" Gates recommends Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future by Pulitzer Prize-winning staff writer at The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert, which he says is the "most straightforward examination of "humanity versus nature" on this list."

The book covers a variety of topics, from attempts to save coral reefs and control flooding in southern Louisiana to the concept of gene drive and geoengineering.

While Gates believes Under a White Sky is a "good reminder that we need to watch out for the unforeseen effects of our actions," he claims he is "more of an optimist" than Kolbert.

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3. A Promised Land

The autobiography of the 44th president, A Promised Land by Barack Obama, covers the author's life up through the operation that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011. 

Gates called the book a "terrific read, no matter what your politics are" which "captures how complex the job of running the country is."

"Obama makes it clear the positives of the job—especially the opportunity to make lives better—outweigh the negatives," Gates notes. "But overall, the memoir left me with a surprisingly melancholy impression of what it’s like to be the president."

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4. The Overstory

In what some may see as an unusual read on Gates' list, The Overstory by Richard Powers follows the lives of nine people and examines their connection with trees. The book won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 2019.

"Even though the book takes a pretty extreme view towards the need to protect forests, I was moved by each character’s passion for their cause and finished the book eager to learn more about trees," Gates said.

Gates warned in his review that The Overstory isn't a book where everything "gets tied up with a bow…and adds, "I didn’t mind the lack of clarity, but some other people might. If you are in the mood for something that stimulates your thinking instead of providing answers, though, you’ll love The Overstory. It’s very well-written and takes twists you wouldn’t expect."

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5. An Elegant Defense: The Extraordinary New Science of the Immune System: A Tale in Four Lives

Rounding out his top five picks, An Elegant Defense: The Extraordinary New Science of the Immune System: A Tale in Four Lives, written by Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist Matt Richtel, covers the human immune system and how it interacts with the latest advancements in treatments, biologics.

"He keeps the subject accessible by focusing on four patients, each of whom is forced to manage their immune system in one way or another," Gates said. "Their stories make for a super interesting look at the science of immunity."

Though the book was published prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Gates says it is a "valuable read" that gives readers all the context needed to understand the science of immunity.

"In the process of reading about the four people in An Elegant Defense, you absorb quite a lot of useful and interesting science," Gates said. "Most important, you’ll come away with a much better understanding of our immune system’s awesome complexity—and the delicate, even precarious, tradeoffs inherent in its workings."

"Now that I’ve read An Elegant Defense, I have a deeper, more nuanced appreciation for the system that is at the core of humanity’s fight against COVID-19 and everything our foundation’s Global Health program is trying to do," he added.

The list's release was originally slated for May 10 but was postponed. On May 3, Gates announced that he and his wife Melinda were ending their 27-year marriage. Following the announcement, Gates has transferred billions in various stock holdings to his soon-to-be ex-wife, while dealing with reports of infidelity.