Reading Habits of the Rich and Powerful, 2016 Edition: Gates, Zuckerberg, Obama

The turn of the year, for whatever reason, has revealed the reading habits of three of the world’s most powerful men. Though it’s tempting to place them on a spectrum — who among Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Barack Obama is truly a reader? — it’s worth noting instead that two of the above three elites abstract “reading” into a life process, whereas the remaining “reader” cultivates an idiosyncratic, sometimes unpredictable bond with books.

Last year, you may remember, Zuckerberg launched an informal “book club” by way of his personal Facebook account. Of course, the book club wasn’t really a club; it was more Zuckerberg blogging about stuff he’s read as a part of his personal mission (“A Year of Books”) to read two books a month. (We should question whether Zuckerberg has a grasp of basic object categories: Facebook isn’t a book; a status update isn’t a club.) For the most part, the book club served as an ideological appendage of Zuck’s technocratic aspirations — he used it to dump neoliberal  “idea” books onto suspecting readers.

Now it appears that Zuckerberg is done with his book club, although there is no word yet whether his time interfacing with print books will lead him into book publishing. Ever the good student, though, Zuck signed off with these conclusive remarks:

Reading has given me more perspective on a number of topics — from science to religion, from poverty to prosperity, from health to energy to social justice, from political philosophy to foreign policy, and from history to futuristic fiction.

This challenge has been intellectually fulfilling, and I come away with a greater sense of hope and optimism that our society can make greater progress in all of these areas.

If Zuckerberg here sounds like an alien who has encountered an earthbound reading culture for the first time, no one should be surprised. Now that his “Year in Books” is over, his next project is to build “a simple AI to run my home and help me with my work. You can think of it kind of like Jarvis in Iron Man.”

In the future, book reviewing may be the exclusive privilege of the leisure class, or the philanthropy class, or whatever you call the group that includes Bill Gates. In an interview with the New York Times’ “Fashion & Style” section, Gates discussed his recent turn to the book review format on his blog, Gatesnotes. (He’s even added a category, Books, to a tabulated list that includes Saving Lives, Energy Innovation, Improving Education, and Philanthropy.) Why books? Well, Gates’ answer is, if anything, slightly more human and less programmatic than Zuckerberg’s. “I have always loved reading and learning,” Gates said, “so it is great if people see a book review and feel encouraged to read and share what they think online or with their friends.”

The moral of this story? The urge to review books goes unsatisfied even when your every material and altruistic need is met. More interesting is Gates’ choice in books. He enjoyed, for example, Richard Dawkins’ The Magic of Reality, “which explains various scientific ideas and is aimed at teenagers.” Though Gates is quick to point out that he “already understood all the concepts.” Along these lines, Gates fell hard for Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project and its sequel, The Rosie Effect, which apparently tell the story of “a genetics professor with Asperger’s Syndrome who goes looking for a wife.” Gates headlined one of his posts about the book, “Can You Be Too Logical?” Maybe someone can remind him of Betteridge’s law.

The White House released President Obama’s vacation reading list last week, and its “dark” and “heavy” tenor has already been noted by The Washington Post. But what hasn’t been noted is that Obama is the most interesting reader we’ve had in office for decades, even if Bill Clinton was able to recite Macbeth from memory. On the list: Franzen’s Purity (OK); Richard Price/Harry Brandt’s The Whites (more interesting); David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers (American, obligatory); and — most interesting of all — Liu Cixin’s The Three Body Problem. The last of these is the first translated work by a writer who is considered the best in Chinese science fiction. Here’s a summary:

Set against the backdrop of China’s Cultural Revolution, a secret military project sends signals into space to establish contact with aliens. An alien civilization on the brink of destruction captures the signal and plans to invade Earth. Meanwhile, on Earth, different camps start forming, planning to either welcome the superior beings and help them take over a world seen as corrupt, or to fight against the invasion. The result is a science fiction masterpiece of enormous scope and vision.

There is something conspiratorially appealing about Obama’s inclusion of this book — which syncs well with Hillary Clinton’s promise to “get to the bottom” of the the question of whether aliens exist. I laughed when I saw it, at least until I realized that Zuckerberg included it, too.