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Microsoft's Bill Gates turns to book reviewing

October 27, 2011 |  8:38 am

Bill Gates has put his talents to book reviewing
Billionaire Bill Gates, who remains chairman and chief software architect of his company, Microsoft, has put his talents to book reviewing. On Wednesday, he posted his review of "Prime Movers of Globalization: The History and Impact of Diesel Engines and Gas Turbines" by Vaclac Smil (MIT University Press) on his personal website, Gates Notes:

As a history buff, I appreciate books that give you a sense of the people behind important inventions and the sweeping impact they have had on society. Often -– as in the case of the diesel engine and the gas turbine -– incremental advances obscure the profound impact of technology. In Prime Movers, Smil focuses in on a slice of 20th century technological innovation and shows the phenomenal impact it has had on international trade and travel.

To put the significance of the diesel engine and the gas turbine in perspective, Smil points out that until coal-powered steam engines came along a few hundred years ago, animals and human muscle were the “prime movers” of manufacturing, and wind and sails the prime movers of international travel and trade. The steam engine was an important underpinning of the industrial revolution. But its impact pales in comparison to the diesel engine and the gas turbine. ...

There are a lot of fascinating historical points and statistics in Smil’s book that make it an interesting read, but what most fascinated me was learning about the incredible impact these two innovations have had on so many aspects of our lives.

It turns out that Gates has been reviewing books on the site every few weeks since March. His recent reads include "Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America's Schools" by Steven Brill, "Getting Better: Why Global Development is Succeeding" by Charles Kenny, and "Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation" by Steven Johnson.

His first posted book review was back in February 2010, of Steven Levitt's and Stephen Dubner's "SuperFreakonomics"; frankly, it wasn't much. "I had a chance to read a prepublication copy of SuperFreakonomics before it was officially released," it began. "I really liked Freakonomics and I think SuperFreakonomics is even better." If one of my freshman writing students had turned that in, it wouldn't have gotten a B-minus.

Since then, Gates has much improved as a book reviewer. He often uses a personal take, explaining why he's interested in this topic, and sometimes comes with a critical eye. He picked up Johnson's book "with a little bit of skepticism," he wrote. "Lots of books have been written about innovation -– what it is, the most innovative companies, how you measure it. The subject can seem a little faddish," he said, but he found Johnson's book to be a cut above.

Most of the books Gates writes about fall into the line with his philanthropic pursuits with the Gates Foundation: education, healthcare, technology and the underlying processes affecting those systems. It makes sense that he's reading about them -- but few billionaires take the time to write up their thoughts and share them as a book reviews.

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-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Bill Gates, left, with Warren Buffett in 2007. Credit: Nati Harnik / Associated Press

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