The Essential Chomsky, 'Understanding Power: The Indispensable Noam Chomsky' and ' What We Say Goes: Conversations on US Power in a Changing World'

IssueDecember 2008 - January 2009
Review by Gabriel Carlyle

To mark his eightieth birthday The New Press have published a new selection of Noam Chomsky’s political and linguistic writings (The Essential Chomsky).

While some of the selections (which span almost five decades) would have to be included in any essential collection - the famous demolition of B.F. Skinner’s Verbal Behaviour, or his reflections on the 1967 march on the Pentagon, where he was arrested for civil disobedience – there are also some surprising omissions, eg. his brilliant, epic essay on the Spanish Civil War, as refracted through the lens of liberal scholarship, or his eyewitness accounts of the wars in Indochina.

More importantly, this may not be the best book for the newcomer. Anyone who manages to work their way through (and absorb!) the entire book will have acquired an impressive education regarding the realities of US foreign policy, the media, “free trade”, and much else besides. However, it will be a very hard slog.

Easier starting points are the remarkable collection of edited Q&A sessions with activists (Understanding Power: The Indispensable Noam Chomsky) and David Barsamian’s most recent interview book (What We Say Goes: Conversations on US Power in a Changing World).

The latter has the same virtues as its predecessors: brilliant analysis, drawing on an amazing range of sources, but without the hard-to-read fact-laden prose-style of Chomsky’s essay collections. Topics touched upon include the imminent threat of nuclear war, the July 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, pandemic flu, the “9/11 truth movement” and other internet cults, and “why every serious revolutionary is a reformist.”

As one reviewer once noted: “Not to have read [him] is to court genuine ignorance.”

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