Reading about the death of publishing giant André Schiffrin, the longtime editor in chief at Pantheon Books who also founded the New Press, led me to reflect on the importance of books in my life. Without independent-minded publishers like Schiffrin, who was willing to lose money in order to publish books he deemed important, would I have become an academic? It’s a serious question.
Two of the books Schiffrin published at Pantheon were crucial to my early intellectual development: The Chomsky Reader (1987) and Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman’s Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (1988). These books, and Noam Chomsky in general, taught me how to read texts through a critical lens, and how to recognize the biases of the politically powerful in even the most seemingly of objective expressions. Even though I have since come to different understandings of power and knowledge—even though, for example, I see the merits in Foucault, whom Chomsky famously debated in 1971—Chomsky was my gateway drug to a hermeneutics of suspicion.
My guess is that Chomsky started many people down similar paths. Which is why a publisher like Schiffrin was so crucial. It’s also why we as U.S. intellectual historians should take Chomsky more seriously. John Summers, who publishers The Baffler, wrote a 2005 piece titled, “Chomsky and Academic History.” It begins:
Noam Chomsky has written more than 30 books over the last three decades. Yet neither the Journal of American History, nor the American Historical Review, nor Reviews in American History has reviewed them. If the journals had overlooked one or two of Chomsky’s books, then the omissions might not rise to the status of a problem, and could be attributed to a combination of reasons each of them incidental to Chomsky himself. If the journals had in fact devoted attention to him, but the preponderance of the attention had been hostile, then they might stand accused of harboring a bias. This is the most respectable way to disagree about such matters. But the journals have not done enough to deserve the accusation. They have not reviewed a single one of his books. Chomsky is one of most widely read political intellectuals in the world. Academic history pretends he does not exist.
If a recent piece on Chomsky, “American Anarchist,” is any indication, The American Conservative seems to take Chomsky more seriously than academic historians. I would like this to change. I would love to see intellectual historians take up Chomsky as a subject worthy of our attention.
My 2 questions to readers:
1) Why don’t we study Chomsky? (And implicit in that question: should we?)
2) Which writers/books were your gateway drugs to the Life of the Mind?