Summer Books for a Billionaire

When Bill Gates announced his 2016 summer reading list, geeks rejoiced. As in previous years, it’s a stack of books full of a lot of long words and sentences. No James Patterson or Stephen King for him; certainly no Austen or Dickens.

To his credit, there is a novel, a sci-fi one that does look interesting, Seveneves by Neal Stephenson. But even this book may be a little complicated for some. As Gates put it: “You might lose patience with all the information you’ll get about space flight—Stephenson, who lives in Seattle, has clearly done his research—but I loved the technical details.”

I’m sure he did. He’s that sort of person. I don’t necessarily mean this as an insult, as I type this using Microsoft Word on a computer with a Microsoft Windows operating system. His company has created some useful products. However, for summer reading one needs to strike a balance. It’s also wise to dip into a book that has proven staying power—i.e., something like Austen or Dickens. Unfortunately, Gates’s book lists—you can read all his reviews at this link—are always of new books. He really does not appear to be to see much use for the classics. With that, I’ve got a few recommendations for him.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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First, as far as fresh and new books go, Gates can start with Fr. Robert Spitzer, S.J. Spitzer is three books into a four-volume series on happiness, suffering and transcendence, being published by Ignatius Press. The first book, Finding True Happiness: Satisfying Our Restless Hearts, explains transcendent happiness and why it is the only happiness that truly satisfies. The second, The Soul’s Upward Yearning: Clues to Our Transcendent Nature from Experience and Reason, offers just that—an explanation that transcendence can be sensed and understood via our natural faculties.

The third book in the series is just out now. Titled God So Loved the World: Clues to Our Transcendent Destiny from the Revelation of Jesus, it argues the reasonableness that a Creator would want to personally manifest himself in human history.

I don’t really expect Gates to read these books. Even though his wife is Catholic and their kids apparently go to her parish’s school, he is a little unclear on whether there is even a God. Here’s his response in a Rolling Stone magazine interview in 2014:

I agree with people like Richard Dawkins that mankind felt the need for creation myths. Before we really began to understand disease and the weather and things like that, we sought false explanations for them. Now science has filled in some of the realm—not all—that religion used to fill. But the mystery and the beauty of the world is overwhelmingly amazing, and there’s no scientific explanation of how it came about. To say that it was generated by random numbers, that does seem, you know, sort of an uncharitable view. I think it makes sense to believe in God, but exactly what decision in your life you make differently because of it, I don’t know.

Clearly, this is a man who needs these books. He’s also a man who can do so much good, and seems to want to, even though his priorities are significantly askew.

If he ever wanted to read a more modern classic—and if he did want to get bogged down in a multi-volume series, there’s one more book I recommend he consider reading and then promoting. And it’s not even Catholic. That would be Man’s Search for Meaning, originally published in 1946 by Victor Frankl.

A psychiatrist, Frankl spent three years as a prisoner at Auschwitz and reports on the many humiliations and deprivations he and his fellow prisoners experienced. These blunted the emotions of the prisoners, Frankl noted, while also deepening their interior life. Prisoners had a respect and love for art, the beauty of nature, sincere religious debate, and even humor. To borrow a word from Fr. Spitzer’s books, the prisoners who survive were often the ones who most often transcended the reality before them, in the muck and death they saw daily in their lives at Auschwitz.

“The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity—even under the most difficult circumstances—to add a deeper meaning to his life.” Frankl writes, “Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not.”

As a psychiatrist, Frankl developed the school of logotherapy, which help patients make sense of life by seeking meaning in what lies beyond.

What makes these books ideal picks for Bill Gates? Their commonality demonstrated in their approach to the material world, and the fact that there is a deeper meaning that arises above the material world—our true happiness is to seek that meaning. This transcendent meaning is discoverable, and available for all to aspire to.

Likewise, that makes these books ideal summer reading—along with some good light fiction, of course—for all of us, because they help us take advantage of summer vacation to be re-inspired by the truth, beauty and goodness in life, even in the most dire circumstances. The fact that Frankl found goodness even in the bleakest experiences possible should provide hope to us all.

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  • K. E. Colombini

    K. E. Colombini is a former journalist who served as a political speechwriter before a career in corporate communications. A Thomas Aquinas College alumnus, he also studied English literature at Sonoma State University in Northern California. In addition to Crisis, Colombini has been published in First Things, Inside the Vatican, The American Conservative and the Homiletic and Pastoral Review. He and his wife live in suburban St. Louis, and have five children and ten grandchildren.

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