Many traditions have fallen away during this very unusual year, but here’s one that’s staying with us: Bill Gates’ annual book list.

The Microsoft co-founder and co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation acknowledged on his blog, Gates Notes, that “there’s no doubt that 2020 qualifies as tough times,” and that reading — both weighty books on serious subjects and lighter books for distraction — helped him get through. Here are five books that Gates highly recommends, to help finish a hard year on a good note. Full reviews of each can be found on his blog.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” by Michelle Alexander. “Like many white people, I’ve tried to deepen my understanding of systemic racism in recent months,” Gates wrote. “Alexander’s book offers an eye-opening look into how the criminal justice system unfairly targets communities of color, and especially Black communities.”

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World” by David Epstein. “If you’re a generalist who has ever felt overshadowed by your specialist colleagues, this book is for you,” Gates wrote. “In this fascinating book, [Epstein] argues that although the world seems to demand more and more specialization — in your career, for example — what we actually need is more people ‘who start broad and embrace diverse experiences and perspectives while they progress.'”


The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz” by Erik Larson. In this “brilliant” book, which covers the years 1940 and 1941 in war-torn England, Gates wrote, “Larson gives you a vivid sense of what life was like for average citizens during this awful period, and he does a great job profiling some of the British leaders who saw them through the crisis, including Winston Churchill and his close advisers.”

The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War” by Ben Macintyre. “This nonfiction account focuses on Oleg Gordievsky, a KGB officer who became a double agent for the British, and Aldrich Ames, the American turncoat who likely betrayed him,” Gates wrote. “It’s every bit as exciting as my favorite spy novels.”

Breath from Salt: A Deadly Genetic Disease, a New Era in Science, and the Patients and Families Who Changed Medicine by Bijal P. Trivedi. “This book is truly uplifting,” Gates wrote. “It documents a story of remarkable scientific innovation and how it has improved the lives of almost all cystic fibrosis patients and their families. … I suspect we’ll see many more books like this in the coming years, as biomedical miracles emerge from labs at an ever-greater pace.”