Instead of limiting this years Holiday list, I have selected some of my favorite books regardless of when I read them. One of the selections has been a favorite of mine since middle school and another is a brand new-new memoir I just finished.
As a special bonus, a copy of each of my book selections have been placed in 100 Little Free Libraries around the world, including in locations across Africa, Asia, Europe, South and Central America, and the United States.
The best introduction to grownup sci-fi
When my Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen, and I were kids, we fell in love with computing. But software wasn't the first thing we bonded over. It was Robert Heinlein.
I met Paul around the time I had finished reading all of the science fiction writer’s early books. Those novels were adventure stories with titles like Rocket Ship Galileo and Space Cadet. They weren’t labeled children’s books, but they appealed to kids. The plots were very straightforward. They always had a simple moral and involved a little bit of cool technology and a little bit of romance. I loved them.
Then, when I was in seventh or eighth grade, I got into the Heinlein novels that were meant for adults—but I didn’t know it. Starship Troopers was set in the future but drew parallels with the Cold War. Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress went even deeper into Heinlein’s philosophy of life and his concerns about the future. They were dark and ambiguous. You didn’t always know who the hero was. "This is not the Heinlein I’ve been reading,” I thought. “What happened to the guy?”
I met Paul around the same time, and we got to know each other by talking about sci-fi. I thought I had read a lot of it, but Paul way outdid me. (To be fair, he did have the advantage of being two grades ahead of me in school.) I had one bookshelf filled with science fiction. He probably had eight. Paul explained that the Heinlein books I had stumbled on weren’t children’s stories—they had messages and were supposed to help you think about the real world. That was news to me as a young teenager.
Eventually we started looking for other shared interests. Our school acquired a computer, and we said to each other, “How does this thing work? Let’s try and make it do something.”
Of all the sci-fi I read as a teenager, Stranger in a Strange Land is my favorite. It was published in 1961 and is Heinlein’s most popular book. It’s about a human named Michael Valentine Smith, who’s raised on Mars by Martians and then returns to Earth as a young adult. Because he grew up on Mars, he has psychic abilities and is super-intelligent. After some early adventures, including an escape from the facility where he’s being studied by scientists, he becomes fascinated by the world’s religions. In the novel’s futuristic setting, religions are more politically powerful than they are today, and Smith decides to start his own.
He calls it the Church of All Worlds, and through it, Heinlein predicted a lot of the hippie culture that was to come later in the 1960s. Smith’s adherents learn to “grok” things, a Martian term meaning to understand something by becoming one with it. (The idea of grokking got picked up in popular culture and became, at least for a while, a term you heard a lot even outside the context of the book.) Smith’s followers live in communes, which struck me as pretty out-there when I read it as a teenager.
I love sci-fi that pushes your thinking about what’s possible in the future. In Heinlein’s case, hippie culture isn’t the only thing he predicted. Among other things, Stranger in a Strange Land and other works of his mention what he called a “hydraulic bed”—what we now know as a waterbed. He also does the classic sci-fi thing of using an obviously fictional setting to ask profound questions about human nature.
Heinlein isn’t known as a particularly humorous writer, but Stranger in a Strange Land definitely has some funny parts. Early in the novel, for example, a nurse offers Michael a glass of water. To her, it’s a simple gesture, but it has a lot of meaning for him because water is so scarce on Mars. He thanks her: “May you always drink deep.” After they both take a sip, she can’t figure out why he “seemed content to sink back, as if he had accomplished something important.”
I’m glad I stumbled on Stranger and Heinlein’s other grown-up novels when I did. Everything I had read before them had a tidy ending. though the ending is unclear. It’s up to us to decide what happens next, just like in real life.
Love is that condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own.
Valentine Michael Smith is a human being raised on Mars, newly returned to Earth. Among his people for the first time, he struggles to understand the social mores and prejudices of human nature that are so alien to him, while teaching them his own fundamental beliefs in grokking, watersharing, and love.
The best memoir by a rock star I actually know
When Paul Hewson was 11, his parents sent him to a Dublin grammar school that happened to have an outstanding boys’ choir. Paul, who later took the nickname Bono, loved singing. His father had a beautiful voice, and Paul thought he might have some of his dad’s talent. But when the principal asked him if he wanted to join the choir, his mom jumped in before he could answer. “Not at all,” she said. “Paul has no interest in singing.”
Bono’s new book, Surrender, is packed with funny, poignant moments like this. Even though I’m a big fan of U2, and Bono and I have become friends over the years—Paul Allen connected us in the early 2000s—a lot of those stories were new to me. I went into this book knowing almost nothing about his anger at his father, the band’s near-breakups, and his discovery that his cousin was actually his half-brother. I didn’t even know that he grew up with a Protestant mom and Catholic dad.
I loved Surrender. You get to observe the band in the process of creating some of their most iconic songs. The book is filled with clever, self-deprecating lines like “Just how effective can a singer with anger issues be in the cause of nonviolence?” And you’ll learn a lot about the challenges he dealt with in his campaigns for debt relief and HIV treatment in Africa. (The Gates Foundation is a major supporter of ONE, the nonprofit that Bono helped start.)
In this passage, he explains how a boy from the suburbs of Dublin become a global phenomenon: “There are only a few routes to making a grandstanding stadium singer out of a small child. You can tell them they’re amazing, that the world needs to hear their voice, that they must not hide their ‘genius under a bushel.’ Or you can just plain ignore them. That might be more effective. The lack of interest of my father, a tenor, in his son’s voice is not easy to explain, but it might have been crucial.” (It also helped that he has, as he later learned from a doctor, freakishly large lung capacity.)
Bono’s loyalty to his bandmates, and their loyalty to him, is pretty incredible. My favorite illustration from the book takes place at a concert in Arizona, when the band was urging the then-governor to uphold the national MLK Day holiday in his state. U2’s security team picked up a credible threat to Bono’s life if the band played their Martin Luther King tribute “Pride (In the Name of Love).” “It wasn’t just melodrama,” he writes, “when I closed my eyes and sort of half kneeled to disguise the fact that I was fearful to sing the rest of the words.” When Bono opened his eyes, he saw that bassist Adam Clayton had moved in front of him to shield him like a Secret Service agent. Fortunately, the threat never materialized.
There’s another factor that explains the band’s tight bonds: They share the same values. All four of them are passionate about fighting poverty and inequity in the world, and they’re also aligned on maintaining their integrity as artists. I learned this the hard way. When Microsoft wanted to license U2’s song “Beautiful Day” for an ad campaign, I joined a call in an attempt to persuade the band to go for the deal. They simply weren’t interested. I admired their commitment.
While Bono never got lost in drugs or alcohol, he acknowledges that stardom gave him a big ego. He also says that he had a “need to be needed.” His key to survival was embracing the concept of spiritual surrender, as the title of the book suggests. He eventually came to see that he’d never fill his emotional needs by playing for huge crowds or being a global advocate. His faith in a higher power helped him a lot. So did his wife, Ali. He writes that when his mom died during his childhood, his home “stopped being a home; it was just a house.” Ali and their four children gave him a home once again.
Bono writes that his surrender is still incomplete. He’s not going to retire anytime soon, which is great news and not just for U2 fans. After the past few years, the field of global health—one of his chief causes—needs an injection of energy and passion. Bono’s unique gifts are perfectly suited to that mission.
It takes great faith to have no faith.
"I was born with an eccentric heart."
A remarkable book by a combative artist, who finds he's at his best when he learns how to surrender.
Episodic and irreverent, introspective and illuminating, Surrender is Bono's life story, organized—but not too tidily—around forty U2 songs.
Bono grew up on the Northside of Dublin with a Catholic father and a Protestant mother during a time of rising sectarian violence in Ireland. The loss of his mother at the age of fourteen was the absence that would shape his search for family. He started out life feeling average, but ultimately his whole life would be pitted against the assumption that anyone is average.
His creativity is chaotic but ever present . . . in the studio, onstage, at the protest, along the halls of Congress, or in a corner bar. We read about his anger issues, which colour his writing on love and nonviolence, and hear him own up to an ego "far taller than my self-esteem.
"Across four decades, U2 transform from teenage wannabes to the biggest band in the world, and Bono evolves from a part-time activist to a full-time force in the fight to cancel poor countries' debt and persuade governments, particularly the United States, to respond to the global AIDS emergency. We are with him at the birth of PEPFAR, the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. At the time, it amounted to the biggest health intervention in the history of medicine to fight a single disease. He describes the campaigners of ONE, the NGO he cofounded, as "factivists" and sister organization (RED) as a "gateway drug" to activism.
U2 fans will learn why Bono believes U2 have stayed together despite decades of personal struggle and fiery creative disagreements and find keys to unlock the meaning of the band's most popular and influential songs.
The doors are opened to Bono's interior life. The squandering of human potential is a constant theme, as is his faith, which he describes as sorting the signal from the noise, a "still small voice" he hears strongest in his marriage, his music, and in the fight against extreme poverty.
Above all, Surrender is a love story written to his wife, Ali, whom he asked out on a first date the same week as the band's first rehearsal. Alison Stewart supplies direction for every major scene in this drama, including the third act they now enter, with more questions than answers regarding what to fight for and when to surrender.
The best guide to leading a country
I’m fascinated by Abraham Lincoln. I’ve read a ton about him, and I’ve collected Lincoln-related materials, including a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation and his handwritten copy of the victory speech he gave after being re-elected president. Years ago, I read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln and was blown away. Of all the books I’ve read about the 16th president of the U.S., Team of Rivals is the best.
Lately I’ve been thinking about Goodwin’s book because it feels very relevant in 2022. There are significant parallels between the current moment and the 1860s, when the nation was dealing with violent insurrection, difficult questions about race, and ideological divides between states and regions. Team of Rivals has a lot of insights about Lincoln that leaders can learn from today.
It is amazing for example to read about how Lincoln was able to push the Thirteenth Amendment through a Congress made up exclusively of white men. Although Lincoln does not have a clean record on race—some modern critics in fact label him a racist because of some positions he held—I came away from Team of Rivals more convinced than ever that Lincoln was a profoundly moral man who ranks as America’s greatest president.
He opposed slavery even as a child growing up in the slave state of Kentucky. As he said in one of his famous debates with Senator Stephen Douglas, someday “all this quibbling about … this race and that race and the other race being inferior” would disappear. And then he was willing to invest everything he had to end slavery when he was elected president.
Lincoln’s private persona was exactly what he conveyed in public. Take for example his conversations with the formerly enslaved leader Frederick Douglass. Lincoln called Douglass “one of the most meritorious men in America” and treated him that way, inviting him to the White House to get his advice. Although Douglass had previously criticized Lincoln’s slowness to act on behalf of enslaved people, Goodwin reports that he was impressed by their long meeting. “The president is a most remarkable man,” Douglass told a friend. “I am satisfied now that he is doing all that circumstances will permit him to do.”
Team of Rivals also gives you a deep appreciation for several other traits that made Lincoln so special. He was secure enough to pack his Cabinet with the rivals he had defeated in the presidential campaign, and he was able to ignore or absorb their backstabbing. Once, War Secretary Edwin Stanton ignored a direct order from Lincoln and called him a “damned fool” behind his back. When he heard about the insult, Lincoln smiled and said, “If Stanton said I was a damned fool, then I must be one, for he is nearly always right, and generally says what he means.”
Lincoln was intellectually secure. Despite having a cumulative total of one year of formal schooling and none of the pedigree that his Cabinet members enjoyed, he never had to prove that he was the smartest guy in the room (even though he almost always was).
Lincoln also controlled his emotions. Because he suffered a lot of loss throughout his life—the death of his mother when he was only 14, the death of two sons, and the carnage he saw on battlefields throughout the war—he was prone to falling into deep melancholy. But his losses fueled his empathy and never left him incapacitated.
Finally, he was great about learning from his mistakes. After the Union Army suffered a humiliating defeat in the first full-scale battle of the Civil War, Lincoln visited with his officers and troops so he could learn first-hand what had gone wrong. Then he stayed up all night “drafting a memo incorporating the painful lessons of Bull Run into a coherent future military policy,” as Goodwin writes.
Whenever I have tried to solve a tough problem, whether it’s in technology or philanthropy, I’ve started by looking for great examples from history. In these turbulent times, Abraham Lincoln is as good a model as you will find.
An adult friend of Lincoln's: "Life was to him a school.”
Acclaimed historian Doris Kearns Goodwin illuminates Lincoln's political genius in this highly original work, as the one-term congressman and prairie lawyer rises from obscurity to prevail over three gifted rivals of national reputation to become president.
On May 18, 1860, William H. Seward, Salmon P. Chase, Edward Bates, and Abraham Lincoln waited in their hometowns for the results from the Republican National Convention in Chicago. When Lincoln emerged as the victor, his rivals were dismayed and angry.
Throughout the turbulent 1850s, each had energetically sought the presidency as the conflict over slavery was leading inexorably to secession and civil war. That Lincoln succeeded, Goodwin demonstrates, was the result of a character that had been forged by experiences that raised him above his more privileged and accomplished rivals. He won because he possessed an extraordinary ability to put himself in the place of other men, to experience what they were feeling, to understand their motives and desires.
It was this capacity that enabled Lincoln as president to bring his disgruntled opponents together, create the most unusual cabinet in history, and marshal their talents to the task of preserving the Union and winning the war.
We view the long, horrifying struggle from the vantage of the White House as Lincoln copes with incompetent generals, hostile congressmen, and his raucous cabinet. He overcomes these obstacles by winning the respect of his former competitors, and in the case of Seward, finds a loyal and crucial friend to see him through.
This brilliant multiple biography is centered on Lincoln's mastery of men and how it shaped the most significant presidency in the nation's history.
The best guide to getting out of your own way
When Roger Federer announced his retirement, I thought of a fascinating insight he once gave me into his playing style. One of the keys to his success, he told me, is his incredible ability to keep his cool and remain calm.
Anyone who saw Roger play knows what he meant. When he got down, he knew he might need to push himself a little more, but he never worried too much or got too down on himself. And when he won a point, he didn’t waste a lot of energy congratulating himself. His style was the opposite of someone like John McEnroe, who showed all of his emotions and then some.
I was glad to hear Roger talk about that element of his game, because it’s something I’ve been trying to incorporate in my own way since the mid-70s, when I first came across Timothy Gallwey’s groundbreaking book The Inner Game of Tennis. It’s the best book on tennis that I have ever read, and its profound advice applies to many other parts of life. I still give it to friends today.
Inner Game was published in 1974 and was a big hit. Gallwey, a successful tennis coach based in southern California, introduced the idea that tennis is composed of two distinct games. There’s the outer game, which is the mechanical part—how you hold the racket, how you keep your arm level on your backhand, and so on. It’s the part that most coaches and players tend to focus on.
Gallwey acknowledged the importance of the outer game, but what he was really interested in, and what he thought was missing from most people’s approach, was the inner game. “This is the game that takes place in the mind of the player,” he wrote. Unlike the outer game, where your opponent is the person on the other side of the net, the inner game “is played against such obstacles as lapses in concentration, nervousness, self-doubt, and self-condemnation. In short, it is played to overcome all habits of mind which inhibit excellence in performance.”
That idea resonated with me so well that I read the book several times, which is unusual for me. Before I read it, in just about every match I would say to myself at some point: "I’m so mad that I missed that shot. I’m so bad at this." That negative reinforcement would linger, so during the next point, I was still thinking about that bad shot. Gallwey presented ways of letting go of those negative feelings and getting out of your own way so you could move on to the next point.
Gallwey had one particular insight that seems crazy the first time you hear it. “The secret to winning any game,” he wrote, “lies in not trying too hard.”
How could you expect to win by not trying too hard? “When a tennis player is ‘in the zone,’ he’s not thinking about how, when, or even where to hit the ball,” Gallwey wrote. “He’s not trying to hit the ball, and after the shot he doesn’t think about how badly or how well he made contact. The ball seems to get hit through a process which doesn’t require thought.” (Gallwey was writing at a time when it was still common to use the word “he” to refer to everyone.)
The inner game is really about your state of mind. Is it helping you or hurting you? For most of us, it’s too easy to slip into self-criticism, which then inhibits our performance even more. We need to learn to learn from our mistakes without obsessing over them.
Gallwey and his readers quickly realized that the inner game wasn’t just about tennis. He went on to publish similar books about golf, skiing, music, and even the workplace: He created a consulting business that caters to Fortune 500 companies.
Even though I stopped playing tennis in my 20s so I could focus on Microsoft and didn’t start again until my forties, Gallwey’s insights subtly affected how I showed up at work. For example, although I’m a big believer in being critical of myself and objective about my own performance, I try to do it the Gallwey way: in a constructive fashion that hopefully improves my performance.
And although I’m not always perfect at it, I try to manage teams the same way. For example, years ago, there was an incident where a team at Microsoft discovered a bug in a piece of software they had already shipped to stores. (This was back when software was sold on discs.) They would have to recall the software, at significant cost to the company. When they told me the bad news, they were really beating themselves up. I told them, “I’m glad you’re admitting that you need to replace the discs. Today you lost a lot of money. Tomorrow, come in and try to do better. And let’s figure out what allowed that bug to make it into the product so it doesn’t happen again.”
Tennis has evolved over the years. The best players in the world today play a very different style from the champions of 50 years ago. But The Inner Game of Tennis is just as relevant today as it was in 1974. Even as the outer game has changed, the inner game has remained the same.
It is said that in breathing man recapitulates the rhythm of the universe. When the mind is fastened to the rhythm of breathing, it tends to become absorbed and calm. Whether on or off the court, I know of no better way to begin to deal with anxiety than to place the mind on one’s breathing process.
The Inner Game of Tennis is a revolutionary program for overcoming the self-doubt, nervousness, and lapses of concentration that can keep a player from winning. Now available in a revised paperback edition, this classic bestseller can change the way the game of tennis is played.
Best book about the periodic table
When you walk into my office, one of the first things you see is a huge version of the periodic table. It includes examples or representations of all 118 elements, like a clock with glow-in-the-dark dials for radium and a bottle of Pepto Bismol for bismuth. (Sometimes visitors are just as interested in the table as they are in whatever we’re meeting about—and I don’t blame them!)
Aside from being a neat piece of art, the periodic table reminds me of how one discovery can lead to countless others. All the complexity of the universe comes from the properties on that chart. Because we understand atoms, we can make chips, and therefore we can make software, and therefore we can make AI. Everything goes back to the periodic table.
But how exactly did the periodic table come to be? Anyone who has taken a grade school science class might remember that it was first proposed by the Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleyev. But the table was actually the culmination of two-and-a-half millennia of scientific discovery.
Paul Strathern’s terrific book Mendeleyev’s Dream traces that journey all the way back to ancient Greece, when people first started questioning why the world is the way it is. It’s hard to imagine a time before science. But until Thales of Miletus figured out that the presence of seashell fossils on land must mean the entire world was once a sea, Strathern reminds us that people were more focused on questions of religion than on questions of science.
Strathern spends much of his book exploring chemistry’s roots in alchemy, which was one of the earliest forms of science. For centuries, many of the brightest minds—including Isaac Newton—were fascinated by the idea of turning base materials into gold or an elixir that made you immortal. Although the science proved to be faulty, alchemy inspired generations of scientists to think about how materials interact with each other.
Mendeleyev’s Dream sounds like a dense book, but Strathern keeps things light by writing about the many outrageous personalities who studied alchemy and chemistry over the years. One of the most entertaining chapters is about Paracelsus, a Swiss physician and alchemist from the 1500s. Paracelsus made important contributions to toxicology and medicine. He was also a quirky character with a flair for the dramatic. During one of his lectures, Strathern writes, “Paracelsus opened by announcing that he would now reveal the greatest secret in medical science. Whereupon he dramatically uncovered a pan of excrement.” (He’s a man after my own heart.)
Mendeleyev was also an unusual guy. He was known to get so angry that he would dance “with Rumpelstiltskin-like rage,” and the book’s title refers to his claim that the periodic table came to him in a dream. Regardless of its origins, there is no question of how significant a breakthrough this was. Other scientists had hinted at repeating patterns in the atomic weights of elements, but Mendeleyev was the first to lay them out—and fill in the gaps. He accurately predicted the existence of gallium and germanium before either element was discovered. For the first time, humanity had a road map to understanding the building blocks of the universe.
Mendeleyev’s Dream is the best book I’ve ever read on the periodic table. It helps you understand how it all got pieced together and why it’s so helpful. It’s also a fascinating look at how a new science develops. Strathern describes the story of the periodic table as “a wayward parable of human aspiration,” and I agree. The history of chemistry tells us as much about the evolution of human thinking as it does about the science of matter.
I saw in a dream a table where all the elements fell into place as required. Awakening, I immediately wrote it down on a piece of paper.
In 1869 Russian scientist Dmitri Mendeleyev was puzzling over a way to bring order to the fledgling science of chemistry. Wearied by the effort, he fell asleep at his desk. What he dreamed would fundamentally change the way we see the world.
Framing this history is the life story of the nineteenth-century Russian scientist Dmitri Mendeleyev, who fell asleep at his desk and awoke after conceiving the periodic table in a dream-the template upon which modern chemistry is founded and the formulation of which marked chemistry's coming of age as a science. From ancient philosophy through medieval alchemy to the splitting of the atom, this is the true story of the birth of chemistry and the role of one man's dream.
In this elegant, erudite, and entertaining book, Paul Strathern unravels the quixotic history of chemistry through the quest for the elements.