Five Great Books on Adam Smith

adam smith "speaking of smith"

Shanon FitzGerald for AdamSmithWorks

If you haven't encountered them already, these five books make for great reading on a range of topics related to Smith.
Hey there Speaking-of-Smithers! It’s January, it’s a new year, there’s a plague on and it’s still really cold outside here in the Midwest…. Which leaves me thinking: what better time to sit down or cozy up with a worthwhile book on an interesting subject, to revisit some old ideas, and to possibly absorb some new ones? 

If you’re thinking along these lines too, and want to deepen your familiarity with Adam Smith, then this is the post for you. Today, I am sharing five of my favorite books on Adam Smith and his life, times, ideas, and legacy. While by no means exhaustive, this short collection of titles should help those curious about Smith gain a greater perspective on who he was, what he was all about, and why you (or anyone else) should care.

The Wisdom of Adam Smith: A collection of his most incisive and eloquent observations

Selections by John Haggarty; Edited and introduced by Benjamin A. Rogge

This little book, available in both hardcover and paperback editions from Liberty Fund, is a wonderful collection of direct quotations excerpted from the writings of Smith. The quotes are organized by theme, so it’s a great resource if you want to scan Smith’s mind on a given topic, such as “Government,” “Sympathy,” or “The Impartial Spectator.” As a professor of rhetoric Smith knew full well how to turn an artful phrase, so I heartily recommend this collection of pithy quotations and insightful gems to anyone seeking a thematic introduction to Smith in his own words.

Adam Smith: His Life, Thought, and Legacy

Edited by Ryan Patrick Hanley

This book is a treasure trove of scholarly articles on Adam Smith. While a newcomer to Smith might not be interested in every article, such a person should definitely not avoid the book on that account. Indeed, chapters such as Hanley’s “Adam Smith on Living a Life” and “Adam Smith: Some Popular Uses and Abuses” are thoroughly accessible to any attentive and interested reader. If you find yourself spending some time with this book, I would recommend skipping around a bit, so that you might get a sense of how various types of scholars think and write about Smith.

Adam Smith in His Time and Ours

By Jerry Z. Muller

If the previous book somewhat encourages jumping around from article to article, this book is one to read straight through. It is a masterful synthesis of Smith’s thought as a whole, and one that ably lays out the “civilizing project” Smith intended to advance using markets, institutions, and principles of good governance. This is a book that speaks to the power and promise of well-designed institutions as channels for our political and social passions, a theme that seems especially relevant amidst a pandemic and in the wake of a tumultuous 2020 summer, the raucous general election season, and the unsettling political violence of early 2021. Muller's learned survey of key ideas in political economy is bound to leave you thinking about how some of our most important institutions have fallen short, and what can be done going forward to set them right.

How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life

By Russ Roberts 

This book, by Econtalk host Russ Roberts, is another great one-stop option for those looking to get a quick injection of Smithian ideas into their life. Roberts is a leading economist and a great writer, but most of all he is an exceptionally thoughtful human being. His book is a guide to how Adam Smith’s insights into psychology, relationships, and behavior retain their relevance today, and yes, how they can change your life. That is, if you want them to, and are willing to put in some effort.

Being Me Being You: Adam Smith and Empathy

By Samuel Fleischacker 

This book is an extended, in-depth discussion of the concept of “sympathy” in Adam Smith, and how it relates to our modern idea of empathy. Fleischacker is a subtle and deep reader of Smith, as well as a scholar of philosophy and religion, and his insights are always worth pondering. AdamSmithWorks’ own Amy Willis sat down (digitally!) with Professor Fleischacker last summer to discuss the work, and you can check out that conversation here.

There’s my (current) top five books on Adam Smith! If there is a book that you thought might make it onto this list, but did not, please do let us know in the comments below. We are always interested in reader suggestions for other great books and resources on Adam Smith.

William Apel

My favorite (and only one I have read):

By Russ Roberts

Amy Willis

Fleishacker's book was one of the very best books I read last year (and the subject of a #ReadWithMe series here at AdamSmithWorks.) And here's the video interview we did with him this past summer: