When Jeff Bezos charted Amazon’s path toward online domination, he recognized that books would make a perfect beachhead. “We’ve all had books that have changed our lives,” Bezos has said, “and part of what we’re doing at Amazon.com is trying to help you find and discover that next one.”
To this day, Silicon Valley recognizes the unique power of the book. Bezos uses a list of a dozen carefully chosen titles to explain his company’s spectacular growth. This summer, the prominent Silicon Valley venture capitalist Marc Andreessen released a list of 27 books via Twitter to his 700,000 followers. Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, recently posted his “Five Books Worth Reading This Summer.” And in 2015, Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, announced that he would read a book every other week, inviting others to join his virtual book club.
These lists make fascinating reading in their own right. Tech leaders hold increasing sway over society, and their book recommendations reveal how they intend to reshape it. For these busy minds, reading is no flight of fancy; it is purposeful. There are barely any novels on these lists, no poetry, and no literary criticism. Instead, there is science, social science, psychology, and economics.
Andreessen is a great disrupter, and his summer list highlights the failure of traditional political and financial systems. Thus, there is The Myth of the Rational Voter by Bryan Caplan and, as a complement, Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? by Philip Tetlock. Financial dysfunction drives The Spider Network by David Enrich and When the Wolves Bite by Scott Wapner. The chaotic 2016 U.S. presidential election and Brexit referendum are given special attention.
With little faith in politics or mass movements, Andreessen looks inward. On his list is Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life, personal advice based on evolutionary biology, as well as wisdom culled from Montaigne and the Stoics. The epitome of a hyperrational approach to life is Thinking in Bets, by professional poker player Annie Duke, which Andreessen recommends for “people operating in the real world.”
Instead of looking inward, Zuckerberg identifies positive trends on a macro scale for his book club: Moises Naim’s End of Power (“The world is shifting to give individual people more power that was traditionally only held by large governments”); Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature (“All violence—even terrorism—is actually decreasing over time. If we understand how we are achieving this, we can continue our path towards peace”); and David Deutsch’s Beginning of Infinity (“The way we explain things unlocks greater possibilities”). The message from Zuckerberg is, sit back and enjoy Silicon Valley’s wild ride.
Bill Gates has often promoted the technologically rooted story of human progress via his lists. But since leaving day-to-day operations of Microsoft, he’s let his reading eye rove and his feelings spill over. Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved by Kate Bowler is a “heartbreaking, surprisingly funny memoir about faith and coming to grips with your own mortality,” Gates says. Following Bowler on his summer list is Lincoln in the Bardo, the George Saunders novel, which Gates says gave him “new insight into the way Lincoln must have been crushed by the weight of both grief and responsibility.” There are also “great man” biographies (Da Vinci, Nixon, Teddy Roosevelt) on his list but little else historical.
That neglect is telling: to emphasize inevitable progress, these lists minimize the voices of racial minorities and women. Andreessen’s list of authors includes 25 men and five women, and there is a single African-American. Gates and Zuckerberg have similar percentages of women and black writers. An improbable historical book did appear on Andreessen’s list: Bryan Burrough’s Days of Rage, which he says explains “how 1960s racial politics descended into 1970s terrorist bombings, thanks to privileged college students breaking very bad.”
This description casts our mind to a different time, when privileged college students claiming no political ideology at all plotted to overthrow the established order: their names were Andreessen, Gates, and Zuckerberg.
Noam Cohen is the author of The Know-It-Alls: The Rise of Silicon Valley as a Political Powerhouse and Social Wrecking Ball (New Press).