I’m not ashamed to admit that I have developed an unhealthy fixation on Bill Gates’s summer reading lists. Let others look at Jennifer Lopez and pine after her hair, or wish for Cristiano Ronaldo’s abs. I want what Bill has, which is a collection of brain-widening books, a big old bed in which he and Melinda swap the juiciest bits from the feud between William Howard Taft and Teddy Roosevelt (nerd porn alert!) and absolutely zero chastising notices about overdue books from the public library.
Every summer, I read Bill’s list with the same hopeful fervour that causes me to plan to join a gym in January, and never actually do it. In 2012, I was astonished to see that I had actually read one of the books on Bill’s list – Steven Pinker’s wonderful The Better Angels of Our Nature. I spent a couple of months with it, and even Bill found it challenging: “This one took me more than a day to read because it’s over 700 pages.”
Oh, to be a squintillionaire philanthropist, and not a harried, middle-aged person whose house, in reverse Mary Poppins fashion, seems to magically soil itself every day. This summer, Bill has recommended another six thoughtful books for you to read, in between pulling leeches from your children’s legs and planning the evening’s dinner of hot-dogs grillés avec frites. There are works of history (Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit), science (Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction) and economics (Timothy Geithner’s memoir Stress Test.) I did not see my summer pick, Jacqueline Susann’s The Love Machine, anywhere on the list, so I may have to e-mail Bill and tell him about the oversight.
Vacation reading lists have become a widespread tradition, and their compilers share with Bill a nobly edifying urge, as if the summer is a magical oasis of leisure and self-improvement, rather than a burial ground where ambition goes to die with an empty bottle of Coppertone as a headstone. My favourite reading lists this summer – apart from Bill’s, of course – include this one from the National Catholic Reporter: “10 Summer Books That Are Not About Pope Francis.” There are summer reading lists for seniors, LGBT youth and even libertarians (thank you, Rand Paul).
JP Morgan has released its list of recommended books, including a memoir by Twitter founder Biz Stone and Arianna Huffington’s gauzy dream for workaholic bloggers, Thrive. Somehow, any books about the financial crisis seem to have fallen off JP Morgan’s list – John Lanchester’s Whoops!, perhaps, or Andrew Ross Sorkin’s Too Big to Fail. I’ll e-mail them and let them know.
I get the appeal of lists. I have bought the magazine that promised 10 Ways To Thrill Your Man With Jell-O And A Nerf Gun, and I always click on Eight Kittens That Changed The Course Of World History. I understand the sweet, compact genius of the list, and I bow before its throne. And as an author and a reader, I appreciate any crumbs thrown to the starving wolves of the book world. But as I read these lists, I do wish they were a tiny bit more about reality and less about aspiration.
Have you noticed, when politicians and celebrities are asked for their summer reading picks, that no one ever says, “Yeah, I’m reading this Ross Macdonald paperback that smells like the bottom drawer.” No, as Politico recently reported, they are very busy with big books. So Condoleezza Rice’s summer reading includes Alexis de Tocqueville (not for the first time, of course) and Tom Brokaw will be reliving his trips around the coast of Turkey by reading Herodotus – as one does. The rest of us will be searching airport shops for books that aren’t about vampires.
I’m not trying to espouse some sort of reverse snobbery, which assumes that common is king; books about big ideas should be on the menu at all times of the year. What’s annoying about these lists is how often they assume that only works of non-fiction can have that kind of intellectual heft, and that novels are incapable of opening any doors in our brains. Several years ago, George W. Bush was roundly mocked when his summer reading list included one of the great novels of the 20th century, Albert Camus’s The Stranger. Bill Gates has said in the past that he doesn’t “read much fiction,” although this year’s list does include Graeme Simsion’s charming novel The Rosie Project – but only, it seems, because Melinda read it to him in bed and it made him laugh.
Yet, as any novel-reader will tell you, the fictional world is alive with challenges and wisdom. Show me a book that says as much about the Chechen wars as Anthony Marra’s novel A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, or is as insightful about money and power as Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. And if you want to know about sexual politics in 1960s New York, start digging around Goodwill for a copy of The Love Machine. But why am I telling you this? Make your own choices. Read what you like, and you’ll like what you read.