I am a fan of the end-of-year lists, and this one from Bill Gates on the best books he’s read this year, is excellent:
- The Box, by Marc Levinson. You might think you don’t want to read a whole book about shipping containers. And Levinson is pretty self-aware about what an unusual topic he chose. But he makes a good case that the move to containerized shipping had an enormous impact on the global economy and changed the way the world does business. And he turns it into a very readable narrative. I won’t look at a cargo ship in quite the same way again.
- The Most Powerful Idea in the World, by William Rosen. A bit like The Box, except it’s about steam engines. Rosen weaves together the clever characters, incremental innovations, and historical context behind this invention. I’d wanted to know more about steam engines since the summer of 2009, when my son and I spent a lot of time hanging out at the Science Museum in London.
- Harvesting the Biosphere, by Vaclav Smil. There is no author whose books I look forward to more than Vaclav Smil. Here he gives as clear and as numeric a picture as is possible of how humans have altered the biosphere. The book is a bit dry and I had to look up a number of terms that were unfamiliar to me, but it tells a critical story if you care about the impact we’re having on the planet.
- The World Until Yesterday, by Jared Diamond. It’s not as good as Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel. But then, few books are. Diamond finds fascinating anecdotes about what life is like for hunter-gatherers and asks which ones might apply to our modern lifestyles. He doesn’t make some grand pronouncement or romanticize tribal life. He just wants to find the best practices and share them.
- Poor Numbers, by Morten Jerven. Jerven, an economist, spent four years digging into how African nations get their statistics and the challenges they face in turning them into GDP estimates. He makes a strong case that a lot of GDP measurements we thought were accurate are far from it. But as I argue in my longer review, that doesn’t mean we know nothing about what works in development.
What are the best books you’ve read this year?