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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10 LEGO Sets For Every Type of LEGO Builder 

Amazon
Amazon

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

If you’re looking for a timeless gift to give this holiday season, look no further than a LEGO set. With kits that cater to a wide age range—from toddlers fine-tuning their motor skills to adults looking for a more engaged way to relax—there’s a LEGO set out there for everyone. We’ve rounded up some of our favorite sets on Amazon to help you find the LEGO box that will make your loved one smile this year. If you end up getting one for yourself too, don’t worry: we won’t tell.

1. Classic Large Creative Gift Box; $44

Amazon

You can never go wrong with a classic. This 790-piece box contains dozens of types of colored bricks so builders of any age can let their inner architect shine. With toy windows, doors, tires, and tire rims included in addition to traditional bricks, the building possibilities are truly endless. The bricks are compatible with all LEGO construction sets, so builders have the option of creating their own world or building a new addition onto an existing set.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Harry Potter Hogwarts Express; $64

Amazon

Experience the magic of Hogwarts with this buildable Hogwarts Express box. The Prisoner Of Azkaban-inspired kit not only features Hogwarts's signature mode of transportation, but also Platform 9 ¾, a railway bridge, and some of your favorite Harry Potter characters. Once the train is built, the sides and roof can be removed for play within the cars. There is a Dementor on board … but after a few spells cast by Harry and Lupin, the only ride he’ll take is a trip to the naughty list.

Buy it: Amazon

3. Star Wars Battle of Hoth; $160

Amazon

Star Wars fans can go into battle—and rewrite the course of history—by recreating a terrifying AT-AT Walker from the Battle of Hoth. Complete with 1267 pieces to make this a fun challenge for ages 10 and up, the Walker has elements like spring-loaded shooters, a cockpit, and foldout panels to reveal its deadly inner workings. But never fear: Even though the situation might look dire, Luke Skywalker and his thermal detonator are ready to save the day.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Super Mario Adventures Starter Course; $60

Amazon

Kids can play Super Mario in 3D with LEGO’s interactive set. After constructing one of the courses, young designers can turn on the electronic Mario figurine to get started. Mario’s built-in color sensors and LCD screens allow him to express more than 100 different reactions as he travels through the course. He’ll encounter obstacles, collect coins, and avoid Goomba and Bowser to the sound of the Mario soundtrack (played via an included speaker). This is a great gift for encouraging problem-solving and creativity in addition to gaming smarts.

Buy it: Amazon

5. Gingerbread House; $212

Amazon

Gingerbread houses are a great way to enjoy the holidays … but this expert-level kit takes cookie construction to a whole new level. The outside of the LEGO house rotates around to show the interior of a sweet gingerbread family’s home. Although the living room is the standout with its brick light fireplace, the house also has a kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, and outdoor furniture. A LEGO Christmas tree and presents can be laid out as the holidays draw closer, making this a seasonal treat you can enjoy with your family every year.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Elsa and Olaf’s Tea Party; $18

Amazon

LEGO isn’t just for big kids. Toddlers and preschoolers can start their LEGO journey early by constructing an adorable tea party with their favorite Frozen characters. As they set up Elsa and Olaf’s ice seats, house, and tea fixings, they’ll work on fine-motor, visual-spatial, and emotional skills. Building the set from scratch will enable them to put their own creative spin on a favorite movie, and will prepare them for building more complicated sets as they get older.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Collectible Art Set Building Kits; $120

Amazon

Why buy art when you can build it yourself? LEGO’s Beatles and Warhol Marilyn Monroe sets contain four options for LEGO art that can be built and displayed inside your home. Each kit comes with a downloadable soundtrack you can listen to while you build, turning your art experience into a relaxing one. Once you’re finished building your creation it can be exhibited within a LEGO brick frame, with the option to hang it or dismantle it to start on a new piece. If the 1960s aren’t your thing, check out these Sith and Iron Man options.

Buy it: Amazon

8. NASA Apollo Saturn V; $120

Amazon

The sky (or just the contents of your LEGO box) is the limit with LEGO’s Saturn V expert-level kit. Designed for ages 14 and up, this to-scale rocket includes three removable rocket stages, along with a command and service module, Lunar Lander, and more. Once the rocket is complete, two small astronaut figurines can plant a tiny American flag to mark a successful launch. The rocket comes with three stands so it can be displayed after completion, as well as a booklet for learning more about the Apollo moon missions.

Buy it: Amazon

9. The White House; $100

Amazon

Reconstruct the First Family’s home (and one of America’s most famous landmarks) by erecting this display model of the White House. The model, which can be split into three distinct sections, features the Executive Residence, the West Wing, and the East Wing of the complex. Plant lovers can keep an eye out for the colorful rose garden and Jacqueline Kennedy Garden, which flank the Executive Residence. If you’re unable to visit the White House anytime soon, this model is the next best thing.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Volkswagen Camper Van; $120

Amazon

Road trip lovers and camping fanatics alike will love this vintage-inspired camper. Based on the iconic 1962 VW vehicle, LEGO’s camper gets every detail right, from the trademark safari windshield on the outside to the foldable furniture inside. Small details, like a “Make LEGO Models, Not War” LEGO T-shirt and a detailed engine add an authentic touch to the piece. Whether you’re into old car mechanics or simply want to take a trip back in time, this LEGO car will take you on a journey you won’t soon forget.

Buy it: Amazon

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11 Fascinating Facts About Mark Twain

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Mark Twain is widely considered the author of the first great American novel—The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—but his rollicking tales aren’t the only legacy he left behind. His poignant quotes and witticisms have been told and retold (sometimes erroneously) over the last century and a half, and his volume of work speaks for itself. Over the course of his legendary career, Twain—real name Samuel Langhorne Clemens—wrote more than a dozen novels plus countless short stories and essays and still found time to invent new products, hang out with famous scientists, and look after a house full of cats.

1. Mark Twain is a nautical reference.

Like many of history’s literary greats, Mark Twain (né Samuel Langhorne Clemens) decided to assume an alias early on in his writing career. He tried out a few different names—Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass, Sergeant Fathom, and, more plainly, Josh—before settling on Mark Twain, which means two fathoms (12 feet) deep in boating jargon. He got the idea while working as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River—a job he held for four years until the Civil War broke out in 1861, putting a halt to commerce. (However, another popular theory holds that he earned the nickname in a bar. According to reports in a couple of 19th-century newspapers, he’d walk into a pub and call out “mark twain!,” prompting the bartender to take a piece of chalk and make two marks on a wall for twain—two—drinks. Twain denied this version of events, though.)

2. In addition to being a steamboat pilot, Mark Twain also worked as a miner.

Shortly after his stint on The Big Muddy, Twain headed west with his brother to avoid having to fight in the war. He took up work as a miner in Virginia City, Nevada, but the job wasn't for him. (He described it as "hard and long and dismal.") Fortunately for Twain, he didn’t have to work there long. In 1862, he was offered his first writing job for Virginia City’s Territorial Enterprise newspaper, where he covered crime, politics, mining, and culture.

3. A story Mark Twain heard in a bar led to his “big break.”

Historic American Buildings Survey (Library of Congress), Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1864, Twain headed to Calaveras County, California in hopes of striking gold as a prospector (he didn’t). However, it was during his time here that he heard the bartender of the Angels Hotel in Angels Camp share an incredulous story about a frog-jumping contest. Twain recounted the tale in his own words in The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. It was published in 1865 in The New York Saturday Press and went on to receive national acclaim.

4. It took Mark Twain seven years to write The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Twain started writing the sequel to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in 1876, but he wasn’t too pleased with his progress. After writing about 400 pages, he told a friend he liked it "only tolerably well, as far as I have got, and may possibly pigeonhole or burn" the manuscript. He put the project on the back burner for several years and finally finished it in 1883 following a burst of inspiration.

5. Mark Twain invented a board game.

While Twain was putting off writing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, he was busy working on a game he dubbed Memory Builder. It was originally supposed to be an outdoor game to help his children learn about England’s monarchs, but he ended up turning it into a board game to improve its chances of selling. However, after two years of work, it was still too convoluted to be marketable and required a vast knowledge of historical facts and dates. That didn’t stop him from patenting the game, though.

6. Mark Twain created "improved" scrapbooks and suspenders.

Memory Builder wasn't Twain's only invention; he also patented two other products. One was inspired by his love of scrapbooking, while the other came about from his hatred of suspenders. He designed a self-adhesive scrapbook that works like an envelope, which netted him about $50,000 in profits. His “improvement in adjustable and detachable straps for garments” also ended up being useful, but for an entirely different purpose than Twain originally intended. According to The Atlantic, “This clever invention only caught on for one snug garment: the bra. For those with little brassiere experience, not a button, nor a snap, but a clasp is all that secures that elastic band, which holds up women's breasts. So not-so-dexterous ladies and gents, you can thank Mark Twain for that."

7. Thomas Edison filmed Twain at home.

Only one video of Twain exists, and it was shot by none other than his close friend Thomas Edison. The footage was captured in 1909—one year before the author died—at Twain’s estate in Redding, Connecticut. He’s seen sporting a light-colored suit and his usual walrus mustache, and one scene shows him with his daughters, Clara and Jean. On a separate occasion that same year, Edison recorded Twain as he read stories into a phonograph, but those audio clips were destroyed in a fire. No other recording of Twain’s voice exists.

8. Mark Twain did wear white suits, but not as often as you might think.

Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

When you think of Mark Twain, you probably picture him in an all-white suit with a cigar or pipe hanging from his lips. It’s true that he was photographed in a white suit on several occasions, but he didn’t start this habit until later in life. According to The Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum, “In December 1906, he wore a white suit while appearing before a congressional committee regarding copyright. He did this for dramatic emphasis. Several times after that he wore white out of season for effect.” He also refused to trade his white clothes for “shapeless and degrading black ones” in the winter, no matter how cold it got. So take that, people who subscribe to the “no white after Labor Day” rule.

9. At one point, Mark Twain had 19 cats.

Twain really, really liked cats—so much so that he had 19 of them at one time. And if he was traveling, he would “rent” cats to keep him company. In fact, he had a much higher opinion of felines than humans, remarking, “If man could be crossed with the cat, it would improve man, but it would deteriorate the cat.” He also had a talent for coming up with some great cat names; Beelzebub, Blatherskite, Buffalo Bill, Sour Mash, Zoroaster, Soapy Sal, Pestilence, Bambino, and Satan were just a few of the kitties in his brood.

10. Mark Twain probably didn’t say that thing you think he said.

Twain is one of the most misquoted authors in history. According to one quote wrongfully attributed to him, “It is better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than to open it and remove all doubt.” What Twain actually said was, “[He] was endowed with a stupidity which by the least little stretch would go around the globe four times and tie.” There are many, many examples of these.

11. Mark Twain accurately predicted when he would die.

When he was born on November 30, 1835, Halley’s Comet was visible from Earth. It appears roughly every 75 years, and Twain predicted he would die the next time it graced the sky. As he put it in 1909, “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.’ Oh, I am looking forward to that.” He ended up passing away at his Connecticut home on April 21, 1910, one day after Halley’s Comet appeared in the sky once again.

This story has been updated for 2020.