Netflix recently released the three-part Davis Guggenheim documentary Inside Bill’s Brain: Decoding Bill Gates. In the first scene after the opening credits of episode one, we see Bill get out of bed at six in the morning to start his day. He pulls on some shoes and a sweater, fills a book bag, and (above) leaves for work.
It seems on first viewing like an incidental detail, Bill stuffing into an already full tote bag Robert Sapolsky’s Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, and Mathew Desmond’s Evicted before he heads out the door.
You have to watch the better part of the episode to understand why Guggenheim decided to show Bill filling the book bag rather than, say, eating breakfast to start his day.
Books are Bill’s sustenance (he does not, in fact, need breakfast) and the big, heavy book bag, white canvas with blue trim, reinforced bottom and handles, is a recurring character in the documentary. In fact, among the hundreds of characters to whom we are introduced, the book bag takes a back seat only to Bill, his wife Melinda, and Guggenheim himself in his role as narrator.
Guggenheim (with Gates above) is an accomplished filmmaker. He produced and directed the Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth. More importantly, he was a producer and director along with David Milch on the first season of HBO’s Deadwood,which may be the best single-season of anything in the history of television.
Inside Bill’s Brain tells the Gates story through three major projects (one per episode) undertaken by The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Gates has devoted most of his energy to the foundation since leaving Microsoft in 2008. Microsoft, of course, is the company he founded in 1975 at age twenty, earning himself about $100 billion and making as great a contribution as anyone to the success of the personal computer.
The foundation has been about the only way for media to get time with Gates. I interviewed him about a decade ago when his primary mission, not since abandoned, was to reform American education.
Guggenheim talks to Gates about his efforts to wipe polio from the face of the earth, halt global warming by making nuclear power safe, and bring clean drinking water to the developing world. The film does justice to those projects while sketching along the way the Gates biography.
Guggenheim gets wonderful access to the man himself, Melinda, Bill’s sisters, Bill’s best friend Warren Buffett, and a few selected colleagues. We see old home movies of Bill, Bill at summer camp, Bill in the computer lab at high school, Bill building Microsoft, Bill playing bridge with Warren Buffett (below), Bill kayaking with Melinda, and Bill at home in his magnificent domed library (where he keeps an original da Vinci manuscript for which he paid $30 million at auction).
While the tone of the documentary is friendly, it doesn’t whitewash Gates’ fallout with Paul Allen, or his troubles with Janet Reno’s U.S. Justice Department, or the fact that a lot of his philanthropic efforts have yet to produce fruit despite the enormous resources thrown at them.
Many of the times we see Bill in motion—whether traipsing through a corridor to his office or alighting from a floatplane at a dock in Washington state—he is carrying the book bag. No one else is ever seen carrying the book bag. And Bill, no matter where he is, carries nothing but the book bag. No luggage, no briefcase, no laptop.
Guggenheim spotted the book bag the very first time he met Bill. They were together at a film screening. Guggenheim saw Bill in the throng and noticed he was reading something. He approached him to ask what it was. Bill was reading a Minnesota State budget. He had another thirty-seven state budgets with him in the book bag. It’s a big bag—bigger than your average book bag, easily accommodating two dozen, and perhaps as many as thirty books.
Repeatedly, throughout the three episodes, we see Bill plowing through his books. The founder of one of the world’s great tech company reads hard copies, not a Kindle. He takes notes with a $4 Uni-ball Deluxe Fine Roller Pen (below), writing either in the book or on a pad of foolscap. As he reads, he sucks on the temple tips of his tortoiseshell eyeglasses (also below), which he apparently does not need to see the page.
Guggenheim introduces us to Gates’ executive administrator, Lauren Jiloty (below) even before we meet Melinda). Jiloty, who was special assistant to Hilary Clinton when she was secretary of State, is responsible for packing, unpacking, and cleaning the book bag on a weekly basis. “It goes everywhere with him,” she says as she packs it for the camera. She reads off the titles as they drop into the canvas:
“Measure What Matters (John Doerr)
The Vaccine Race (Meredith Wadman)
Haiti Prioritizes (Bjorn Lomborg)
Blockchain Revolution (Don Tapscott)
Strength in Stillness (Bob Roth)
Inventions that Changed the World (Robert Buderi)
How to Make a Mind (Roger Kingdon)
Fundamentals of Deep Learning (Nikhil Buduma)
Quantum Mechanics and Path Integrals (Richard Feynman)
Algorithms (Sanjoy Dasguta et al)
The Book of Why (Judea Pearl and Dana Mackenzie)
Bad Blood (John Carreyrou)
Life 3.0 (Max Tegmark)
Educated (Tara Westover)
To Be A Machine (Mark O’Connell)
The Perfect Weapon (David E. Sanger)
Elastic (Leonard Mlodinow)”
When Gates gets interested in a subject, he doesn’t read a book about it. He reads five books about it. He reads fast, about 150 pages an hour, with an estimated 90% retention, and he averages about two books a day.
The reading habit started when he was young. He would lock himself in a messy room with books everywhere and read all day long, chewing on pencils which, it appears, have since been placed with eyeglasses.
While at Microsoft, he used to take “think weeks,” sequestering himself in a tiny cabin (above) with his book bag and a seemingly endless supply of diet coke. Now, says Guggenheim, his life is one big think week.
How does he decide what to read? “There are a few topics,” says Gates, “like if it’s about health, energy, climate change, and quite a few other areas, if there’s a good book, I’m going to read it.”
Gates appears to be the only person alive to have read all forty-some books by University of Manitoba energy specialist Vaclav Smil, author of the popular Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities and the impossibly obscure Japan’s Dietary Transition and its Impacts. But for a guy fundamentally oriented around science and tech, Bill has good range as a reader, dipping into fiction, biography, history, and memoir.
Bill and Melinda apparently bonded soon after she started working at Microsoft over a shared appreciation of The Great Gatsby, and Bill has a quote from the book circling the domed ceiling of his library: “He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dreams must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it.”
It’s an oddly romantic spin on one of the most tragic sentences in American literature but that’s between them.
Melinda, in a candid interview, laughingly says there’s nothing but chaos Inside Bill’s Brain, but Guggenheim brings it across as an interesting place to be. We highly recommended the series.
And if you’ve noticed that Bill has been taking a strong interest in coronavirus recently, you might want to stop by his blog where he offers a selection of books on pandemics, vaccines, immunity, and related topics, along with videos of him explaining how vaccines work, and all of his usual book reviews which are posted regularly.
There’s also this feature on his blog:
Finally, for our readers who shop, as far as we can tell Bill’s bag is an extra-large L.L. Bean Boat and Tote: