Bill Gates’s 49 Favorite Books of the Decade

John Lamparski/Getty Images
John Lamparski/Getty Images

Each December, Bill Gates takes to his blog GatesNotes to look back at his reading trends from the year and recommend a few favorite books to the rest of us. He recently published his 2019 list, which includes Tayari Jones’s novel An American Marriage; Jill Lepore’s 800-page history of the United States, These Truths; and three other Gates-approved must-reads.

In looking back at all the books he has read this year, Gates noticed a rather uncharacteristic trend: he read much more fiction than usual. Though the only novel to make his recommendation list was An American Marriage, Gates also mentioned he’d finished A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles and The Rosie Result by Graeme Simsion. He’s also working to get through the rest of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas before the end of the year; he thinks it’s “amazingly clever but a bit hard to follow.” And while he did read David Foster Wallace’s short story collection Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, he hasn’t read Infinite Jest, either.

If you’re thinking this sounds like a surprisingly normal, even relatable reading list for one of our biggest modern-day geniuses, don’t be fooled. Since we’re about to enter a new decade, CNBC took this opportunity to compile a list of all the books Gates has recommended since he started his yearly tradition in 2012—and the overall trend is quite Gatesian.

Many of the books take macro concepts and try to make sense of them by analyzing them on a micro scale, like Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words, and How Asia Works. They tackle questions like “Why is college so expensive?” and “Can we end world hunger?” There are a few more fiction titles on the list—Thi Bui’s graphic novel The Best We Could Do and Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, for example—and several memoirs that might appeal to readers who gravitate toward more personal stories.

All things considered, Gates’s favorite books from the decade are wide-ranging and thought-provoking, and there’s likely a title or two for every type of reader.

Scroll on for the full list:

  1. An American Marriage // Tayari Jones ($12)
  2. These Truths // Jill Lepore ($14)
  3. Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities // Vaclav Smil ($31)
  4. Prepared: What Kids Need for a Fulfilled Life // Diane Tavenner ($25)
  5. Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dream // Matthew Walker ($16)
  6. Educated: A Memoir // Tara Westover ($14)
  7. Army of None: Autonomous Weapons and the Future of War // Paul Scharre ($27)
  8. Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup // John Carreyrou ($16)
  9. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century // Yuval Noah Harari ($20)
  10. The Headspace Guide to Meditation and Mindfulness // Andy Puddicombe ($20)
  11. The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir // Thi Bui ($18)
  12. Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City // Matthew Desmond ($11)
  13. Believe Me: A Memoir of Love, Death, and Jazz Chickens // Eddie Izzard ($17)
  14. The Sympathizer // Viet Thanh Nguyen ($18)
  15. Energy and Civilization: A History // Vaclav Smil ($16)
  16. String Theory: David Foster Wallace on Tennis // David Foster Wallace ($15)
  17. Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike // Phil Knight ($18)
  18. The Gene: An Intimate History // Siddhartha Mukherjee ($13)
  19. The Myth of the Strong Leader: Political Leadership in the Modern Age // Archie Brown ($17)
  20. The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future // Gretchen Bakke ($12)
  21. The Road to Character // David Brooks ($15)
  22. Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words // Randall Munroe ($16)
  23. Being Nixon: A Man Divided // Evan Thomas ($14)
  24. Sustainable Materials With Both Eyes Open (Without the Hot Air) // Julian M. Allwood and Jonathan M. Cullen ($29)
  25. Eradication: Ridding the World of Diseases Forever? // Nancy Leys Stepan ($25)
  26. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success // Carol S. Dweck ($11)
  27. The Vital Question // Nick Lane ($19)
  28. Business Adventures: 12 Classic Tales from the World of Wall Street // John Brooks ($15)
  29. Capital in the 21st Century // Thomas Piketty ($17)
  30. How Asia Works // Joe Studwell ($15)
  31. The Rosie Effect // Graeme Simsion ($21)
  32. Making the Modern World: Materials and Dematerialization // Vaclav Smil ($39)
  33. The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger // Marc Levinson ($28)
  34. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention // William Rosen ($13)
  35. Harvesting the Biosphere: What We Have Taken From Nature // Vaclav Smil ($24)
  36. The World Until Yesterday // Jared Diamond ($16)
  37. Poor Numbers: How We Are Misled by African Development Statistics and What to Do About It // Morten Jerven ($23)
  38. Why Does College Cost So Much? // Robert B. Archibald and David H. Feldman ($30)
  39. The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble Over Earth’s Future // Paul Sabin ($13)
  40. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined // Steven Pinker ($15)
  41. Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China // Ezra Vogel ($12)
  42. The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World // Daniel Yergin ($16)
  43. Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything // Joshua Foer ($26)
  44. Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity // Katherine Boo ($12)
  45. One Billion Hungry: Can We Feed the World? // Gordon Conway ($20)
  46. A World-Class Education: Learning From International Models of Excellent and Innovation // Vivien Stewart ($14)
  47. Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses // Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa ($17)
  48. This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly // Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff ($15)
  49. The City That Became Safe: New York’s Lessons for Urban Crime and Its Control // Franklin Zimring ($17)

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Kodak’s New Cameras Don't Just Take Photos—They Also Print Them

Your Instagram account wishes it had this clout.
Your Instagram account wishes it had this clout.
Kodak

Snapping a photo and immediately sharing it on social media is definitely convenient, but there’s still something so satisfying about having the printed photo—like you’re actually holding the memory in your hands. Kodak’s new STEP cameras now offer the best of both worlds.

As its name implies, the Kodak STEP Instant Print Digital Camera, available for $70 on Amazon, lets you take a picture and print it out on that very same device. Not only do you get to skip the irksome process of uploading photos to your computer and printing them on your bulky, non-portable printer (or worse yet, having to wait for your local pharmacy to print them for you), but you never need to bother with ink cartridges or toner, either. The Kodak STEP comes with special 2-inch-by-3-inch printing paper inlaid with color crystals that bring your image to life. There’s also an adhesive layer on the back, so you can easily stick your photos to laptop covers, scrapbooks, or whatever else could use a little adornment.

There's a 10-second self-timer, so you don't have to ask strangers to take your group photos.Kodak

For those of you who want to give your photos some added flair, you might like the Kodak STEP Touch, available for $130 from Amazon. It’s similar to the regular Kodak STEP, but the LCD touch screen allows you to edit your photos before you print them; you can also shoot short videos and even share your content straight to social media.

If you want to print photos from your smartphone gallery, there's the Kodak STEP Instant Mobile Photo Printer. This portable $80 printer connects to any iOS or Android device with Bluetooth capabilities and can print whatever photos you send to it.

The Kodak STEP Instant Mobile Photo Printer connects to an app that allows you to add filters and other effects to your photos. Kodak

All three Kodak STEP devices come with some of that magical printer paper, but you can order additional refills, too—a 20-sheet set costs $8 on Amazon.

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

10 Fascinating Facts About Herman Melville

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Born in New York City to a wealthy and socially connected family, Herman Melville (1819-1891) chose a life as exciting as that of his Moby-Dick narrator Ishmael. He spent years at sea on whaling ships and traveled to far-flung places, but also struggled to make it as a novelist while supporting a large extended family. To celebrate his birthday on August 1, we’re diving into Melville’s adventures and fishing for some surprising facts.

1. Herman Melville's mother changed the spelling of their last name.

Despite his family’s wealth and pedigree—his mother Maria Gansevoort descended from one of the first Dutch families in New York, and his father Allan Melvill came from old Boston stock—young Herman had an unstable, unhappy childhood. Allan declared bankruptcy in 1830 and died two years later, leaving Maria with eight children under the age of 17 and a pile of debt from loans and Allan’s unsuccessful businesses. Soon afterward, Maria added an "e" to their surname—perhaps to hide from collection agencies, although scholars are not sure exactly why. "It always seemed to me an unlikely way to avoid creditors in the early 19th century," Will Garrison, executive director of the Berkshire Historical Society, tells Mental Floss.

2. Herman Melville struggled to find employment.

Thanks to a national financial crisis in 1837, Melville had difficulty finding a permanent job, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. He served as a bank clerk, teacher, land surveyor, and crew member on a packet ship before signing on, in 1841, to the whaler Acushnet of New Bedford, Massachusetts, then the whaling capital of the world. He served aboard a few different whalers and rose to the role of harpooner. His adventures at sea planted the seeds for Melville’s interrogation of man, morality, and nature in Moby-Dick. In that novel, Melville (in the voice of Ishmael) says, "A whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard."

3. Herman Melville jumped ship in the middle of a three-year voyage. 

Melville and the Acushnet’s captain didn’t get along, so when the ship reached the Marquesas Islands, Melville and a friend, Richard Tobias Greene, hid in the forests until the ship departed. They spent a month living with the Pacific Islanders. Melville was impressed with their sophistication and peacefulness; most Europeans believed that Polynesians were cannibals. He also found reason to criticize European attempts to "civilize" the islanders by converting them to Christianity. Melville drew on his South Pacific experiences in his first two novels, which became runaway bestsellers: Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847).

4. Herman Melville was inspired by a mountain.

Herman Melville's home, Arrowhead, in Pittsfield, MassachusettsDaderot/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

Melville moved to Arrowhead, his charming mustard-colored home in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, with his wife Elizabeth and their son in 1850, after he achieved fame as a popular adventure novelist. In the upstairs study, he set up his writing desk so he could look out the north-facing window, which perfectly framed the summit of Mount Greylock, Massachusetts’s tallest mountain. Gazing at the peak on a sunny day, Melville was struck by how much the horizontal apex looked "like a sperm whale rising in the distance." He arranged his desk so he would see the summit when he happened to glance up from his work. In that room, in early 1851, Melville completed his manuscript of Moby-Dick.

5. Herman Melville fictionalized an actual whaling disaster.

While on the Acushnet, Melville had learned about an infamous shipwreck from the son of one of its survivors. In November 1820, a massive sperm whale had attacked and sunk the whaleship Essex of Nantucket in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Its crew, stranded in three small boats with little food or water, chose to drift more than 4000 miles to South America instead of 1200 miles to the Marquesas Islands—where Melville had enjoyed his idyll—because they thought they’d be eaten by the natives. Ironically, some of the castaways ended up eating their dead shipmates to survive.

Melville used the disaster to form the climax of Moby-Dick, in which the Pequod of Nantucket is destroyed by the white whale. Melville visited Nantucket for the first time only after the novel was published. He personally interviewed the Essex’s captain, George Pollard, who had survived the terrible ordeal and become the town’s night watchman. Later, Melville wrote, "To the islanders he was a nobody—to me, the most impressive man, tho’ wholly unassuming, even humble—that I ever encountered."

6. Moby-Dick was a flop.

Readers who were expecting another rip-roarin’ adventure like his earlier novels Typee or Redburn were sorely disappointed when Melville’s masterpiece was published in November 1851. The British edition of Moby-Dick, or The Whale received some positive reviews in London newspapers, but American reviewers were shocked at its obscure literary symbolism and complexity. “There is no method in his madness; and we must needs pronounce the chief feature of the volume [the character of Captain Ahab] a perfect failure, and the work itself inartistic,” wrote the New York Albion. The reviewer added that the novel's style was like "having oil, mustard, vinegar, and pepper served up as a dish, in place of being scientifically administered sauce-wise."

7. Herman Melville was very fond of his chimney.

Arrowhead became the locus of Melville’s family life and work. Eventually, he and Lizzie, their two sons and two daughters, his mother Maria, and his sisters Augusta, Helen, and Fanny all lived in the cozy farmhouse. For a couple of years, Nathaniel Hawthorne was such a frequent guest that he had his own small bedroom off Melville’s study. After Moby-Dick, Melville wrote the novels Pierre and The Confidence-Man, his collection of works called The Piazza Tales, short stories including “Bartleby the Scrivener,” and many other pieces there. Melville grew very attached to the house, especially to the massive central chimney, which he immortalized in his 1856 short story “I and My Chimney.” Yet his financial struggles after Moby-Dick failed to find an audience led Melville to sell Arrowhead to his brother Allan in 1863. As an homage, Allan painted a few lines from “I and My Chimney” on the chimney's stonework, which are still visible today.

8. Herman Melville finally got a day job.

Melville’s chronic money woes prompted a return to New York City, into a brick townhouse at 104 East 26th Street in Manhattan, where the family benefited from being back in the bustle of civilization. Melville finally found regular employment as a district inspector for the U.S. Customs Service and maintained an office at 470 West Street. At the same time, he mostly abandoned writing short stories and novels in favor of poetry. In between inspections he wrote Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land, based on his visit to the Middle East in 1857. Because of its length—at more than 18,000 lines, it's the longest poem in American literature—and unconventional approach to its subject, Melville once called it "eminently adapted for unpopularity."

9. Herman Melville's last major work was discovered by accident.

The centennial of Melville’s birth renewed interest in his novels and poems, most of which were long out of print by then. Raymond Weaver, a literature professor at Columbia University working on the first major biography of Melville, collaborated with Eleanor Melville Metcalf, Melville’s granddaughter and literary executor, who gave him access to the author’s papers. In 1919, while poking through letters and notes, Weaver discovered the unfinished manuscript of Billy Budd in a tin breadbox. Melville had started to write the short story about a tragic sailor in 1888 but, by his death in 1891, had not completed it. Weaver edited and published the story in 1924, but initially considered the tale "not distinguished." Other scholars asserted that Billy Budd was Melville’s final masterpiece.

10. You can see Herman Melville's personal collection of knick-knacks.

Just a short drive from Arrowhead, the Berkshire Athenaeum in Pittsfield holds the world’s largest collection of Melvilliana in its Melville Memorial Room. Along with first editions of Melville’s work and a full library of books about him, there are priceless objects owned by or associated with the author. Fans can geek out over the earliest known portrait of Melville, painted in 1848; carved wooden canoe paddles that he collected in Polynesia; his walking stick; his favorite inkstand, quills, and other desktop tchotchkes; a collection of scrimshaw, maps, and prints; and Elizabeth Melville’s writing desk. There's a section of the first successful transatlantic cable, which Melville valued as a prized souvenir, and even the actual breadbox in which Billy Budd had been hiding.