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Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg's guide on what to read at Davos

The global elite will descend on the Swiss mountain resort later this month. But have they packed their bedtime reading material yet?
The global elite will descend on the Swiss mountain resort later this month. But have they packed their bedtime reading material yet? Photograph: Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters

As the world’s rich and powerful pack their suitcases for the World Economic Forum in Davos later this month, they might throw in a book. But it’s unlikely to be an airport thriller.

WEF, which has organised the gathering of global leaders and business executives in the Swiss alpine town since 1971, has released a list of books recommended by two Davos regulars who also happen to be proud bookworms: Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg.

If they’re fans of EL James, John Grisham or JK Rowling they’re not shouting about it. In fact the list is light on fiction and heavy on dense non-fiction but it does include a sci-fi choice: The Three-Body Problem by Chinese writer Liu Cixin.

Bill Gates, seen here in 1988.
Bill Gates, seen here in 1988. Photograph: Getty Images

Gates and Zuckerberg, who are the 2nd and 4th richest people in the world, have credited reading as key to their success. Gates, who amassed a $92bn (£68bn) fortune largely from Microsoft which he co-founded in 1975, reads for at least an hour every night and gets through books at the rate of one a week.

Zuckerberg, who is worth $77bn 13 years after he started Facebook in his Harvard University dorm room, isn’t as speedy a reader as Gates but his New Year resolution in 2015 was to read at least one book every fortnight.

They both agree that Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined – an 800-page tome by Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker is a must-read. The book argues that while it may feel like the world has become more dangerous, a longer look over human history shows violence is on the wane. It jumped to the top of Amazon’s book charts when Gates first tweeted that it was “the most inspiring book I’ve ever read”.

“[Pinker] shows how the world is getting better. Sounds crazy, but it’s true. This is the most peaceful time in human history,” Gates said. “That matters because if you think the world is getting better, you want to spread the progress to more people and places. It doesn’t mean you ignore the serious problems we face. It just means you believe they can be solved.”

Gates, in a review posted on his own blog, said Pinker’s book was “one of the most important books I’ve read – not just this year, but ever”.

Zuckerberg picked it for his Facebook book club, which turned the titles it picked into major bestsellers. “It’s a timely book about how and why violence has steadily decreased throughout our history, and how we can continue this trend,” he said.

The book may be helpful reading for the 2,500 world leaders, business executives and charity bosses attending the WEF which this yearcarries the theme of “creating a shared future in a fractured world”.

Among the approximately 40 world leaders attending the summit this year is Donald Trump, who will be the first serving US president to go to Davos since Bill Clinton in 2000. Trump is not known to be a reader of long books. When asked in a TV interview which was the last book he read Trump replied: “I read passages, I read areas, chapters, I don’t have the time.”

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg with co-founder Chris Hughes at Harvard University in 2004.
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg with co-founder Chris Hughes, photographed at Harvard University in 2004. Photograph: Rick Friedman/Corbis via Getty Images

Gates also recommends The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee, an oncologist and graduate of Oxford, Harvard and Stanford. “Mukherjee wrote this book for a lay audience, because he knows that the new genome technologies are at the cusp of affecting us all in profound ways,” Gates said.

Zuckerberg recommends Liu’s The Three-Body Problem as a “fun break” from the weighty economics and social science books he included on the list. The book is set during Chairman Mao’s cultural revolution, and opens with an alien race invading Earth after the Chinese government covertly sent signals into space.

James Daunt, the founder of Daunt books and managing director of Waterstone’s, said: “It is very pleasing to learn that even the very greatest of geeks love their science fiction. Three Body Problem has been a great success – and helped to broaden the appeal of science fiction – since Barack Obama sang its praises [last January].

Daunt said the list included some of “the best serious non-fiction of the last few years”. “[Yuval Noah Harari’s] Sapiens was the best-selling paperback last year at Waterstones and you would expect The Gene, Better Angels and [Henry Kissinger’s] World Order to be among the mainstays of every table of serious non-fiction in our shops.”

Elif Şhafak, a judge of the panel for the Man Booker international prize last year, said the WEF, Gates and Zuckerberg had sent a “very positive, constructive message” by releasing the list.

“In a world where sadly many politicians clearly do not read, many business and social community leaders clearly do not read, and a world where telling the truth has become increasingly difficult, it is important to speak in support of books, freedom of speech, knowledge and imagination,” she said. “However, my concern is, even though the list is beautifully diverse and eclectic in other ways, women writers are almost nonexistent here and why is that? I sincerely hope they will be reading more women writers in the new year.”

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This article titled "Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg's guide on what to read at Davos" was written by Rupert Neate Wealth correspondent, for The Guardian on Friday 12 January 2018 06.00am

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