Mind-changing Books

Thomas Sowell

4/8/2009 12:01:00 AM - Thomas Sowell

From time to time, readers ask me what books have made the biggest difference in my life. I am not sure how to answer that question because the books that happened to set me off in a particular direction at a particular time may have no profound or valuable message for others-- and can even be books I no longer believe in today.

The first book that got me interested in political issues was Actions and Passions by Max Lerner, which I read at age 19. It was a collection of his newspaper columns, none of which I remember today and all of which were vintage liberalism, which even Max Lerner himself apparently had second thoughts about in his later years.

The writings of Karl Marx-- especially The Communist Manifesto-- had the longest lasting effect on me as a young man and led me to become and remain a Marxist throughout my twenties. I wouldn't recommend The Communist Manifesto today either, except as an example of a masterpiece of propaganda.

There was no book that changed my mind about being on the political left. Life experience did that-- especially the experience of seeing government at work from the inside.

The book that permanently made me a sadder-- and, hopefully, wiser-- man was Edward Gibbons' The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. To follow one of the greatest civilizations of all time as it degenerated and fractured, even before being torn apart by its enemies, was especially painful in view of the parallels to what is happening in America in our own times.

The fall of the Roman Empire was not just a matter of changing rulers or political systems. It was the collapse of a whole civilization-- the destruction of an economy, the breakdown of law and order, the disappearance of many educational institutions.

It has been estimated that a thousand years passed before the standard of living in Western Europe rose again to the level it had once had back in Roman times. How long would it take to recover from the collapse of Western civilization today-- if we ever recovered?

The kinds of books most readers seem to have in mind when they ask for my recommendations are books that go to the heart of a particular subject, books that open the eyes of the reader in a mind-changing way.

James Q. Wilson's books on crime are like that, shattering the illusions of the intelligentsia about "root causes," "prevention" programs, "rehabilitation," and other trendy nonsense. Professor Wilson's books are a strong dose of hard facts that counter mushy rhetoric.

Peter Bauer's books on economic development demolish many myths about the causes of poverty in the Third World-- and about "foreign aid" as a way of relieving that poverty. The last of these books was the best, Equality, the Third World and Economic Delusion.

If you are interested specifically in why Latin American economies have lagged behind for so long, try reading Underdevelopment is a State of Mind by Lawrence Harrison.

Among my own books, those that the most readers have said changed their minds have been A Conflict of Visions, Basic Economics, and Black Rednecks and White Liberals.

A Conflict of Visions is my own favorite among my books. It traces the underlying assumptions behind opposing ideologies that have dominated the Western world over the past two centuries and are still going strong today. The Vision of the Anointed is another book of mine that deals with the same subject, but concentrating on the conflicts of our time, and it is written in a more readable style, not as academic as A Conflict of Visions.

The most readable of this list of my books is Basic Economics, which may also be the most needed, as suggested by its being translated into six foreign languages.

Black Rednecks and White Liberals challenges much that has been said and accepted, not only about blacks but about Jews, Germans, white Southerners and others.

Experience has probably changed more minds than books have. But some books can pull your experiences together and show how they require a very different vision of the world.