I’ve been asked by several folks to recommend specific books by Thomas Sowell, since I’ve read about 20 of them in the past year and a half. That number’s not so high because I’m such a voracious reader, but rather because Sowell’s such a phenomenal writer that his books can be read quickly.
The first thing that a new reader of Sowell should be aware of is that though he was trained as an economist, ultimately receiving a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago (Milton Friedman was one of his teachers there), he’s written great analysis of many different subjects that aren’t strictly related. This is important for 2 reasons.
First, it shows that possibly more than any other living American writer, he knows how to think. Before our educational institutions were dumbed down with feel-good nonsense unrelated to actual learning, teachers (ideally speaking) considered it more important that their students were able to think using logic and empirical evidence than that they knew particular sets of facts. Sowell’s ability to think has made his books troves of subtle wisdom, and is delightfully contagious as well.
The second, and more obvious reason that you need to care about Sowell’s diversity of writings is that what book you’ll want to read depends on your specific interest. Broadly speaking, his books can be classified in the following categories:
- Elementary Economics
- Race/Culture Issues
- Late Talking Children
- “Intellectuals”* and decision-making
- Economic Theory
I’ll make some recommendations here by category:
This would include Basic Economics, Applied Economics, and Economic Facts and Fallacies. I’d recommend reading Basic Economics thoroughly (as well as testing yourself with the questions Sowell helpfully has provided at the back of the book) if you’ve never read anything on the subject before or taken an econ course. If you’re more advanced in your knowledge of economics, it’s still worth reading through quickly for the specific examples.
Applied Economics and Economic Facts and Fallacies are, as the titles would suggest, a bit more advanced (and Economic Facts and Fallacies in particular gets into some of the other categories of Sowell’s writing).
I’d start here with Black Rednecks and White Liberals, Affirmative Action Around The World, or Ethnic America. If you’re motivated, you could read through his Race and Culture 3-volume work, each volume of which is between 400 and 500 pages of text. (The specific books are titled Race and Culture, Migrations and Cultures, and Conquests and Cultures, but it’s not necessary to read them in any particular order.)
This includes Late Talking Children as well as The Einstein Syndrome: Bright Children Who Talk Late (my most recent Sowell read). These are obviously written for a more specific audience, but The Einstein Syndrome has some interesting insight into gifted children in general as well as the education system. Sowell actually started writing about this by chance (his son John was extremely bright but didn’t start talking until after age 3).
“Intellectuals” and decision-making
In this category I’d put The Vision of The Anointed, A Conflict of Visions, Knowledge and Decisions, The Quest For Cosmic Justice and Intellectuals And Society.
The Vision of The Anointed is possibly the best insight into the “thinking” of the intelligent leftist that’s ever been written, and if I absolutely had to pick one book from this post to recommend to everyone, that would be it.
Knowledge And Decisions is a great insight into the technical reasons that collectivism fails.
The others in this category contain many of the same insights, but I’d especially suggest Intellectuals And Society, the most current of Sowell’s books.
Inside American Education is a great summary of many problems with the educational systems prevailing in the US. Choosing The Right College is fairly self-explanatory, and obviously of particular interest to parents of teenagers.
In this category would be books like Say’s Law: An Historical Analysis, On Classical Economics, and Marxism: Philosophy and Economics. These, particularly Say’s Law, require background knowledge of economic theory and philosophy to be maximally edifying. If that doesn’t describe you, I wouldn’t categorically advise against reading them, but be aware that it won’t be a casual endeavor.
Sowell’s also published several collections of his syndicated columns, such as Is Reality Optional?, Barbarians Inside The Gates and Ever Wonder Why. Handy just to have them in book form.
The Housing Boom and Bust is good, but again hard to categorize.
Lastly, there are his more personal books: A Personal Odyssey and A Man of Letters.
That’s about all I can think of. Feel free to point out anything I missed, and happy reading!
*I’ve put “intellectuals” in quotes because when Sowell writes, he doesn’t really use the term generically to refer to someone who’s smart, well-educated, or working in an academic setting, but to someone who makes a living from ideas alone. The preface to Intellectuals And Society explains why this distinction matters.