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The Margin: Bill Gates’s beach reads: The fall of GE, Obama’s latest memoir and the ‘complicated relationship’ between humans vs. nature

It seems Bill Gates has conflict on the brain.

“Whatever the reason, most of the books on my summer reading list this year touch on what happens when people come into conflict with the world around them,” the Microsoft founder wrote in a blog post on Monday, where he revealed his summer 2021 reading list. 

So what books has the philanthropist been turning to in the midst of his high-profile divorce with Melinda French Gates, and while the COVID-19 pandemic enters a second year with worrisome new variants? Gates says that he has been drawn to works analyzing the “complicated relationship between humanity and nature,” which he suggests could be driven by how the coronavirus has upset lives and livelihoods over the past year, as well as his own push to prevent a climate disaster

Related: Bill Gates says this is the ‘best business book I’ve ever read’ — and 5 more business books billionaires highly recommend

Another running plot thread that his favorite books have had in common of late: delving into how people respond to conflict with the world around them. And his recent reads have included a look at the leadership failings of General Electric
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the partisan bickering that dogged former President Barack Obama’s eight years in the White House, as well as an exploration of the human immune system. 

Here are the five books that Gates recommends reading this summer.

“Lights Out: Pride, Delusion and the Fall of General Electric”

“How could a company as big and successful as GE fail?” muses Gates. And he claims that this investigation by Wall Street Journal reporters Thomas Gryta and Ted Mann answered his questions thanks to an “unflinching look at the mistakes and missteps made by GE’s leadership.”

“Today GE is worth a fraction what it was at its peak,” Gates says in an accompanying video. “So, an important book to see where the system went awry, which led to a fall for a great company.”

His top takeaway: “One of GE’s greatest apparent strengths was actually one of its greatest weaknesses,” he writes in his review. “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.”

But it turns out that this culture of “making the numbers” at all costs gave rise to “success theater” and “chasing earnings,” Gates continues. “Problems [were] hidden for the sake of preserving performance, thus allowing small problems to become big problems before they were detected.’”

“Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future”

Gates describes this book by Pulitzer Prize-winning New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert as “the most straightforward examination of ‘humanity versus nature’ on this list.” Kolbert addresses issues such as saving the coral reefs, and control flooding in southern Louisiana — as well as how, sometimes, human attempts to address one environmental crisis lead to a host of new issues. Kolbert describes her work as “a book about people trying to solve problems caused by people trying to solve problems.”

Gates has a rosier view than Kolbert, writing, “I don’t think it’s inevitable that humans will keep degrading the environment forever.” But he recommends her research as “a good reminder that we need to watch out for the unforeseen effects of our actions.”

Related: Summer reading: Get better at work, money and retirement

“A Promised Land”

Former President Barack Obama’s latest memoir, which tackles the challenges and isolation he felt during his eight years in the Oval Office, serves as a “refreshingly honest take on the American presidency,” Gates says.

He notes that the book painted a more “melancholy” picture of serving as the chief executive of the United States than he was expecting. “The book captures how complex the job of running the country is. You’re constantly shifting gears, even more than a CEO does,” writes Gates.

“As president, your day is all about making monumental decisions that affect many people’s lives and livelihoods, and you have to focus on many problems at once,” he continues.

“The Overstory”

This 2019 Pulitzer Prize winner by Richard Powers is the lone novel on the list. It follows nine people and their connection with trees, which Gates describes as “one of the most unusual novels I’ve read in years.”

Gates notes that he has almost come to take the red cedars and massive fir trees of his Washington state home for granted, and these nine narratives gave him a fresh appreciation for forests. “Even though the book takes a pretty extreme view toward 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,” he writes.

What’s more, the book “may not have convinced me to move to a remote forest so I can live in a canopy, but it did make me think differently about my relationship with the trees right outside my window,” he says in his review.

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

Pulitzer Prize–winning New York Times reporter Matt Richtel wrote this tome before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, but now his primer on how our immune systems work feels even more timely, Gates says.

The book makes the complex scientific concepts about how the human body fights disease more relatable by drawing on the experiences of four real people, and how their health challenges illustrate the ways that our immune systems work — and what happens when they go out of whack.

“You’ll come away with a much better understanding of our immune system’s awesome complexity — and the delicate, even precarious, trade-offs inherent in its workings,” writes Gates.

“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 concludes.

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