Writing in The New Republic’s new book website (which has been very good so far), Boston College professor Alan Wolfe offers a masters class in how not to review a work of non-fiction. First, while I have greatly enjoyed Tom Sowell’s big books on economics, which are great primers for the non-economist, and learned quite a bit from his many treatises on affirmative action, I haven’t read his latest, Intellectuals and Society. So while Wolfe might be right that Sowell has produced a middling book devoid of “original ideas” (and if this were the most important criterion governing whether a book was worth publishing, it would bankrupt all but a few academic presses), he declines to engage or even explain the premise of Intellectuals and Society.
Wolfe begins his "review":
Let’s get my judgment of Thomas Sowell’s new book out of the way first. There is not a single interesting idea in its more than three-hundred pages. Purporting to deal with the role that intellectuals play in society, it offers no discussion of literature, music, and the arts. While containing copious references to Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, its index lacks references to Lionel Trilling, Hannah Arendt, Saul Bellow, Daniel Bell, Jürgen Habermas, Raymond Aron, Mary McCarthy, Michael Walzer, Amartya Sen, and countless others known to have put an interesting idea or two into circulation. It recycles ancient clichés about the academic world and never questions its author’s conviction that those who share his right-wing views are always right. Jonah Goldberg calls it “an instant classic.” Case closed.
Case closed, because that awful Jonah Goldberg liked it. In fact, if you own any books that Goldberg thinks are wonderful, throw them on to the fire. And how could Sowell write a book about intellectuals without reference to Jürgen Habermas and Daniel Bell, like all the intellectual historians of the left?
So what’s the premise of the book? Wolfe never says. Why is the book so terrible? Wolfe doesn’t offer a single quote and he doesn’t attempt to rebut a single of the book’s claims. If Sowell’s work is so horrid, so unworthy of review from such a brilliant public intellectual as Wolfe and, presumably, undeserving of space in the pages of an august journal like The New Republic, then why even bother? Because Wolfe reads Sowell as a “dour” and angry intellectual—he "takes no joy in anything he has to say"—who very rarely smiles or cracks a joke. How does he know this? He just does. Why is it important? It just is.
Wolfe's groundbreaking conclusion:
Sowell is in desperate need of some cheer. Look Tom, I want to tell him, you write books just like the people who write the ones you attack. We think our ideas are correct, and so do you. Sure, we may get things wrong from time to time but hey, the free market did have something to do with the Great Depression even if you tell me otherwise.
Check out the review here.