Monday, January 07, 2008

Book Review: A Man of Letters by Thomas Sowell

When influential individuals write their memoirs, there is often something that can be overlooked or glossed over and that is teh development of a person over time. Sure, the author can look back and remember what they were like as a child or a young adult. They will be able to track important events in their life and remembers some of the unimportant ones that might be entertaining. But rarely do you get any documentation about their life.

A Man of Letters, a sort of epistlatory companion to Sowell's memoir A Personal Odyssey, provides some documentation about his life via the letters he exhanged with various people, from former teachers, mentors, roommates and even complete strangers who wrote him. The letters, and the commentary that glues them together, are provided in chronological order, and while there may be significant gaps between some of the letters, you can see by what Sowell wrote to others what was important in his life at the time and that provides a glimpse into his life that few could manage in a memoir or that few could stomach. Included in the book are letters to friends and colleagues about the disintegration of his first marriage, his son's late development in speaking (and the support group he founded later in life to help others through the same problem) as well as his fairly well known views on race, affirmative action, economics and other matters upon which he researched and wrote.

What is also impressive about the collection Sowell presents is the long term exchange of letters he had with a number of individuals, including his college roommate and an English professor under whom he studied at Howard University, with whom he corresponded for decades. In these letters, we see the struggle Sowell had to obtain and maintain an academic position, his disagreements with the manner in which colleges and universities were operated (and the growing liberal mindset of caving to whatever interests were in vogue at the time), and his deep seated animonsity toward affirmative action and admission of black students to elite colleges where they were doomed to fail. Sowell describes all of these incidents with various individuals over time.

What A Man of Letters provides, that A Personal Odyssey perhaps omits, is a personal connection. Odyssey was at times distant, more like a biography than a memoir or an autobiography. But A Man of Letters brings it home again and provides personal touches unknown in Odyssey. What is not missing, not by a long shot, is Sowell's personal trademark of speaking his mind, clearly and unapolgetically. That is what makes A Man of Letters, and indeed all of Sowell's writing excellent--the unvarnished truth as Sowell sees it.

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