Musk’s Reading List Reflects His Own Battle ‘Against the Gods’

Tesla’s CEO just recommended a remarkable book. Now it’s hard to find a copy.

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Elon Musk and Tesla co-founder JB Straubel

Photographer: Tom Randall/Bloomberg

What kind of book do you read when you’re trying to overturn two of the world’s most entrenched industries and it feels like everyone is hating on you? I asked Elon Musk, and his response couldn't be more perfect. 

Musk, 45, recently locked down the final designs for Tesla Motors Inc.’s Model 3 electric car, and this week unveiled the first phase of the huge factory that will supply the batteries. When the dust settles at the Gigafactory, it will be the largest building on the planet. (You can read all about it here.) At the same time, Musk has never seen so much scrutiny: over a bid to take over his cousin's solar company, a fatal crash linked to Tesla's Autopilot software, and a to-do list that could bankrupt a small government. 

At the conclusion of a press event, I asked Musk, an avid reader, what he’s been into lately. He started to demur, then checked himself. “Actually, I'm reading a book called Twelve Against the Gods, by Bolitho," he said. “It's really quite good.”

Musk being Musk, news of his latest read sent the price of the few copies out there up 1500 percent.

What a pick. Musk has wide-ranging tastes, from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings to manuals about rocket propellants. He names SpaceX's drone ships after sentient spacecraft in science fiction novels by Iain M. Banks and taught himself about rocket propulsion through books he picked up along the way.

Twelve Against the Gods: The Story of Adventure is an obscure, out-of-print treatise by William Bolitho, published in 1929. Bolitho, a South African journalist and friend of Ernest Hemingway, wrote about 12 famous “adventurers”—from Alexander the Great to U.S. President Woodrow Wilson—who fought against the conventions of their times, for better or for worse. 

Curious, I picked up a used copy on Amazon.com on Tuesday night for $6.35; there were at least a dozen cheap copies to choose from. By morning, the price of a paperback had jumped to $99.99. As I write this, there are no more copies available on Amazon, though a few are left on AbeBooks.com. 

Musk and Tesla are nearing a sort of apogee, in every sense of the word. To some, the realization of his Master Plans to transform both the automotive industry and energy markets have never seemed so close. To others, his ambitions have never orbited farther from planet earth.  

If Bolitho lived today, he might very well be busy researching a 13th chapter. 

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(Corrects spelling of the name of author Iain M. Banks in the fifth paragraph.)
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