Vaclav who? Bill Gates' plug puts a Smil on the face of obscure author

Canadian professor’s work captured the attention of the  Microsoft boss

Kevin Rawlinson
Friday 26 July 2013 18:50
Bill Gates says people could learn a lot from reading Vaclav Smil’s book
Bill Gates says people could learn a lot from reading Vaclav Smil’s book

He has reportedly joked that “no one reads his books”. Little-known author Vaclav Smil’s work may become a great deal more popular in the near future, however, after Microsoft boss Bill Gates gave him a glowing review on his personal blog.

Mr Gates, who is known to be a literature fan and often publishes books reviews, wrote that he is trying to work his way through all of the books written by the Professor Emeritus, who is a prolific, but not necessarily best-selling, author.

He wrote: “There is no author whose books I look forward to more than Vaclav Smil. He jokes that no one reads his books (he’s written more than 30 of them). It’s true that each book only sells a few thousand copies. But I’m trying to read everything he writes.

“Why? He understands a phenomenal range of subjects, from energy to agriculture. On any page he might talk about meat-eating among bonobos or the average human life span during the Roman Empire. Plus he is rigorously numeric, using data to illuminate every topic he writes about. The word “polymath” was invented to describe people like him.”

The plug may well boost Professor Smil’s career and the obscure author should be rubbing his hands with glee, according to literary agent Jonny Geller of Curtis Brown. He said: “When John Le Carré quoted from a book by Tim Butcher, it really did help.”

Mr Gates claimed readers would “learn a great deal” from the book, entitled Harvesting the Biosphere: What We Have Taken From Nature. But it was not quite a rave review: Mr Gates added: “Smil gives as clear and as numeric a picture as is possible of how humans have altered the biosphere. The book is a bit dry and I had to look up a number of terms that were unfamiliar to me, but it tells a critical story.”

Vaclav Smil is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. He was also appointed a Member of the Order of Canada last month.

Jonny Geller, who represents John le Carré, said: “Stephen King sometimes anoints books and you can see a major boost. The queen of this was always Oprah.

“If you think about how publishing works, manuscripts are continually being sent out to ‘big names’ so they can write blurbs and quote from them. There are plenty of occasions on which unlikely championing of books has transformed an author’s fortunes.

“When someone like Bill Gates – who clearly knows his stuff – anoints a writer, it will certainly get people talking.”

Mr Gates recently used his blog – called the Gates Notes – to post his recommendations for a summer reading list.

Among the books he selected were Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? and Marc Levinson’s The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger.

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