Reading nonfiction is a fantastic way to expand your mind and give you an edge in this world. It’s especially useful when we have a specific idea or concept that we’d like to learn more about. However, it’s important not to over-look everything we can learn from fiction.
Fiction resonates with us because it shows us truths about the human condition through great storytelling and compelling narratives. Through an engaging story we can be introduced to big ideas that just don’t resonate the same way in nonfiction: the medium allows for freedom of thought through creativity.
With this short book list, we’d like to take a look at a handful of novels that have inspired some truly extraordinary thinkers, especially today's leaders in technology. Some of these you're probably already aware of. Some not. But they're all worth a look.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Considered one of Fitzgerald’s greatest works, the novel follows the story of the wealthy Jay Gatsby and his love for Daisy Buchanan during the roaring 1920s. With its focus on wealth, excess, status and privilege some have called this a cautionary tale regarding the great American dream. It's also just a hell of a yarn.
This is one of Bill and Melinda Gates‘ favorite books. Mr. Gates says it's “the novel that I reread the most. Melinda and I love one line so much that we had it painted on a wall in our house: ‘His dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it.’”
It’s not only the Gateses who adore this book, the author Haruki Murakami has called it one of his favorites and Chuck Palahnuik has said it was a source of inspiration for Fight Club. “It showed me how to write a ‘hero’ story by using an apostle as the narrator. Really it’s the basis of the triangle of two men and one woman in my book, Fight Club. I read the book at least once a year and it continues to surprise me with layers of emotion.”
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
The story paints a spiritual portrait of the quintessential English butler as his world changes from World War I era to the 1950s. The themes of professionalism and dignity versus authenticity are prevalent throughout the novel.
This is Jeff Bezos‘ favorite book. “If you read The Remains of the Day, which is my favorite book of all time, you can’t help but come away and think, I just spent 10 hours living an alternate life and I learned something about life and about regret.”
Actress and UN Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson has also cited this book as one of her favorites. “When I was growing up, my family, particularly my father, were very stoic. Part of me is very resentful of this British mentality that it's not good to express feelings of any kind – that it's not proper or brave.” She has said she appreciates the book for how it expressed the consequences of this type of discretion.
Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
The book that introduced us to the ever loved and ever hated Holden Caulfield. The unique narrative gives us a glimpse into the mind of a 16 year old boy and the events surrounding his expulsion from prep school.
Bill Gates has said, “I read this when I was 13. It’s my favorite book. It acknowledges that young people are a little confused, but can be smart, and see things that adults don’t.”
Salman Khan, founder of Khan Academy, also lists this as one of his favorite books.
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle
The second book centered around a teenager is A Wrinkle in Time, which brings us into Science Fiction. Some of the most innovative ideas of the last two centuries (trains, planes, robots) were considered science fiction at one point and made appearances in stories before they came about in real life. Science fiction is thus a window into our visions of the future, and tells us a great deal about what people of certain eras were both looking forward to and afraid of.
A Wrinkle in Time follows high schooler Meg Murry as she travels through space and time on a quest to save her father. The novel uses Meg’s extreme/out of this world situations as a way to explore the very real trials of teenagers.
Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, has called A Wrinkle in Time her favorite book as a child.
I wanted to be Meg Murry, the admittedly geeky heroine of “A Wrinkle in Time,” by Madeleine L’Engle. I loved how she worked with others to fight against an unjust system and how she fought to save her family against very long odds. I was also captivated by the concept of time travel. I keep asking Facebook’s engineers to build me a tesseract so I, too, could fold the fabric of time and space. But so far no one has even tried. Jeff Bezos also loved the book. “I remember in fourth grade we had this wonderful contest — there was some prize — whoever could read the most Newbery Award winners in a year. I didn't end up winning. I think I read like 30 Newbery Award winners that year, but somebody else read more. The standout there is the old classic that I think so many people have read and enjoyed, A Wrinkle in Time, and I just remember loving that book.”
The sci-fi author Neal Stephenson comes up multiple times in the reading lists of some incredibly successful individuals. Above are three that seemed to come up the most.
Bill Gates has said that Stephenson’s novel Seveneves rekindled his love for sci-fci, a genre he thinks can be used as a vehicle to help people think about big ideas. With Seveneves in particular, he was struck by “the way the book pushes you to think big and long-term. If everyone learned that the world would end two days from now, there would be global panic, plus a big dose of hedonism. But what if it were ending two years from now? Would people keep going to work? Would kids go to school? If they did, what would you teach them?”
The novel gives us an idea of what might happen if the world were ending and we were forced to escape to space. If that idea wasn’t interesting enough, the book also shoots forward 5,000 years and has the humans going back to what once was Earth.
Larry Page, co-founder of Google, has Stephenson’s Snow Crash in his list of favorite books.
That story takes place in a future America where our protagonist Hiro is a hacker/pizza delivery boy for the mafia in reality and a warrior prince in the Metaverse. Stephenson gives us a glimpse of a what a world would look like where much of our time and definition of self is explored in a shared virtual space and effortlessly weaves together concepts of religion, economics, politics, linguistics and computer science.
Meanwhile, Samuel Arbesman, the complexity scientist and author of The Half-Life of Facts (whom we interviewed recently), told us that Stephenson's Cryptnomicon is one of the best books he's ever read, saying:
The idea that there can be a book that weaves together an amazing plot as well as some really really profound ideas on philosophy and computer science and technology together, that was, I think one of the first times I had seen a book that had really done this. There were these unbelievably informational pieces. It’s also an unbelievable fun read. I’m a big fan of most of Stephenson’s work. I love his stuff, but I would say Cryptonomicon was one in particular that really demonstrated that you could do this kind of thing together.
The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov
Isaac Asimov was another author who appeared on multiple lists, his Foundation Series in particular has influenced an extraordinary number of people. The novel centers on a group of academics (The Foundation) as they struggle to preserve civilization during the fall of the Galactic Empire.
In more than one interview, Elon Musk has expressed that he was greatly influenced by the Foundation Series. He said the books taught him, “The lessons of history would suggest that civilizations move in cycles. You can track that back quite far — the Babylonians, the Sumerians, followed by the Egyptians, the Romans, China. We're obviously in a very upward cycle right now and hopefully that remains the case. But it may not. There could be some series of events that cause that technology level to decline. Given that this is the first time in 4.5bn years where it's been possible for humanity to extend life beyond Earth, it seems like we'd be wise to act while the window was open and not count on the fact it will be open a long time.”
The series also influenced the likes of George Lucas and Douglas Adams. Speaking of…
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
The story chronicles earthling Arthur Dents’ amazing voyage through space after he escapes the destruction of Earth.
Elon Musk considers Douglas Adams one of the great modern philosophers. It was Adams that taught him that “The question is harder than the answer. When we ask questions they come along with our biases. You should really ask, ‘Is this the right question?’ And that’s hard to figure out.”
It’s interesting to note that Musk happened upon the book at a time that he says he was going through and existential crisis (between the ages of 12 to 15). He first turned to Friedrich Nietzsche and Arthur Schopenhauer but found what he needed through Douglas instead. Salman Khan, founder of Khan Academy also lists this as one of his favorite books.
This is in no way an exhaustive list of fiction that has influenced people whom we admire, but we hope that it has inspired you to find more places for those big ideas. Happy Reading!
If you enjoyed this post, check out a few other book recommendation lists we've put out recently:
Book Recommendations by the Legendary Washington Post CEO Don Graham – Among his answers are his favourite fiction and non-fiction books and the book that will stay with him forever.
A Short List of Books for Doing New Things – Andrew Ng thinks innovation and creativity can be learned — that they are pattern-recognition and combinatorial creativity exercises which can be performed by an intelligent and devoted practitioner with the right approach. He also encourages the creation of new things; new businesses, new technologies. And on that topic, Ng has a few book recommendations.