Talking about Thomas Sowell

Jason Riley has just published Maverick: A Biography of Thomas Sowell. Riley is senior fellow of both the Manhattan Institute and the Hoover Institution as well as a weekly columnist for the Wall Street Journal. Yesterday the Journal ran an excerpt of the biography under the headline “The soul of black conservatism.”

Hoover’s recent profile of Sowell provides a handy overview of his life and work. It also reminds me that among Sowell’s many books is A Personal Odyssey, his own account of his life.

Peter Robinson invited Riley to discuss Sowell and his new book on the the Uncommon Knowledge episode recorded on May 13 and just posted on May 26. The interview draws on clips of Peter’s interviews with Sowell over the years. I doubt he has had any other guest more frequently on Uncommon Knowledge than Sowell. Speaking of uncommon knowledge, we can agree that Sowell is its walking embodiment.

As we know from the movie, there’s something about Mary. Even more, there’s something about Thomas Sowell. What is it? Peter comes at the question at the top of his interview by reciting comments he has received in response to viewers of his interviewers with Sowell over the years. They express profound appreciation of the man and his work. By the same token, I think of the stream of letters to the editor published by Forbes long ago when Sowell declared he was giving up his regular column in the magazine. The letters were distraught.

Peter asks Riley what it is about Sowell that elicits these comments. I don’t think Riley comes close to getting at it. I think it is the profound feelings of gratitude that he elicits from readers of his books and columns — for their clarity, their expository gifts, their depth, their evident fairness, and their ability to get to the heart of the matter in prose that sparkles and bites. Especially in his columns, he is able to distill his conclusions in an incomparable aphoristic style. Someone should compile a book of his wit and wisdom like Quotations From Chairman Bill. In any event, the question with which Peter begins the interview is a good one.

I think I first read Sowell in his 1975 Commentary review of John Kenneth Galbraith’s book Money. Galbraith was the Harvard professor, liberal economist, esteemed intellectual, friend of William Buckley. Sowell’s brief review punctured Galbraith’s balloon. First sentence: “For all his sophisticated wit and parade of scholarly erudition—enlivened by lovingly detailed anecdotes—John Kenneth Galbraith is fundamentally as anti-intellectual as any ungrammatical Archie Bunker.”

What is your favorite of his books? We all have our own favorites. It’s hard to choose. Some would pick his writings on economics, some on affirmative action, some on race and culture, some on other subjects I haven’t read. I have my own favorites, but here I would defer to our friend Katherine Kersten. I think she would go with A Conflict of Visions.

This point about Peter’s opening question is the only one I wanted to make before leaving readers with this enjoyable interview about a man who means so much to so many of us.

Via Uncommon Knowledge with Peter Robinson/Hoover Institution.