In the summer of 2007, I was doing research while at the University of Virginia for a seminar under Syed Rizwan Zamir for his class, Islam in the Modern Age: Tradition, Fundamentalism, and Reform. Before I picked up reading fiction as an undergraduate, most all of what I read dealt with political science, the author I read the most by being the famed linguist and political dissident, Noam Chomsky. For my final project, I decided I would contact Chomsky for an interview to see what he’d have to say on the subject matter.

Screw it, it’s worth a shot I figured — even if deep down I knew there was no way he’d respond.




The next day I opened my e-mail, and saw it: Noam Chomsky to jwp5u.

After reading Chomsky’s response, the short answer being, “No, I don’t have the time,” I called home to my parents. Despite the rejection, I was so excited I could nearly urinate my pants and I think I even felt a little dribble at one point.

“Go up to my room,” I told my mom over the phone.

“Why?” she responded.

“Make like Nike and just do it. Look on my bookshelf. Do you see a guy named Noam Chomsky?”

She walked upstairs. I could hear her open my creaky bedroom door.

“Yes, he’s all over the place.”

“He just e-mailed me,” I said to her. “I asked him for an interview and he said he couldn’t do it. Isn’t that awesome?”

“That he said, ‘No.'”

“No, that he responded to my e-mail. Noam Chomsky wrote me an e-mail. Isn’t that awesome? NOAM AVRAM FREAKING CHOMSKY!”

“That’s wonderful,” my mom said to me in a sort of I-can’t-believe-you’re-this-excited-about-an-email voice.

And so ends one of the single greatest moments in my life.

Noam Avram Freaking Chomsky . . . man!

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JEFFREY PILLOW is a contributing writer for The Nervous Breakdown and Hoops Addict. He lives in Charlottesville with his wife, daughter, and dog -- three separate entities. A certified basketball junkie, he also loves cheddar cheese and poorly crafted science fiction thriller films involving cold-blooded animals and bad acting. SEE Shark Attack 3: Megalodon. His work has appeared on Yahoo! Sports, USA Today, and 16 Blocks magazine et al. Visit him online at www.jeffreypillow.com.

26 responses to “Inbox: Noam Chomsky to jwp5u”

  1. James D. Irwin says:

    awesome.

    I remember when I was a bit younger I used to e-mail famous people all the time on the off chance they’d reply.

    Golden Earring (of Radar Love fame) responded, but no-one of Chomsky level fame.

    • Jeffrey Pillow says:

      One day, I’m going to frame this e-mail in my workshop.

      I found it this morning while cleaning out my old inbox from college. Maybe I shouldn’t have posted it as a TNB piece because there’s nothing much to it but I thought, why not? It was a very motivating e-mail to me. It’s sort of like the back and forth I used to do with Howard Zinn, Chomsky’s old buddy. For years, I wrote Zinn and he’d respond back with little stories. Still some of the coolest e-mails I have. Those two guys, in particular, were like rock star status to me from the ages of 17-25.

      • James D. Irwin says:

        I’ve been going through my old inboxes recently to, since I found out you could go straight to one end of your e-mails to the other. Also I have several e-mail accounts.

        It sort of reminded me how driven I used to be, and sort of inspired me.

        Nothing as cool as yours though— which I think is a valid TNB post because it’s a literary website.

        • Jeffrey Pillow says:

          I feel you dude. What’s the saying when you’re young? Heck, I can’t remember. I wanna say “wide eyes” but I think I’m wrong. Anyway, it’s when you’re all inspired and passionate about really etching your mark in the world, a real go-get-it attitude. I think the older I get the more timid I become in doing something such as writing Chomsky. That’s why it’s good to dig back into that inbox to remind yourself, Hey, you had the balls then. Get those balls back my friend and do your thing.

          I’m still waiting for Dennis Rodman to respond to that e-mail I sent him in 2003. Ha.

        • James D. Irwin says:

          I think ‘wide eyed’ is a valid term for being young. Of course the joke of it is I’m only twenty-one now.

          But I spent a lot of the last year feeling old and washed up. I started writing a TNB piece about it, but it was too depressing and self-loathing. But aside from my recent output I realized I was really disappointed in my work at TNB this year, and the lack of anything else I’d done. Especially compared to 2009 where I was writing regularly and working on a novel.

          It was brilliant actually, going back, because it seemed to re-ignite my passion and self-belief.

          I wrote to Walter Cronkite once, with no reply.

  2. Gloria says:

    “Parents just don’t understand.” ~Will Smith

    I think it’s way cool that Noam Chomsky replied to you.

    I was at my local science museum last weekend. There’s an exhibit on Einstein going on. Apparently, toward the end of his life, school children wrote to him regularly. And, apparently, he responded to quite a few of them. Some of the letters and his responses were hanging on the wall. I love that kind of thing.

    I once got an actual rejection letter (as opposed to a form letter) from This American Life. I was so stoked.

    Zachary Quinto (he plays Spock in the new Star Trek movie) once sent me an email on Facebook.

    A couple of years ago, I invited Bill Nye the Science Guy to my sons’ 6th birthday. He didn’t respond. He’s clearly no Einstein.

    • James D. Irwin says:

      Zachary Quinto sent you an e-mail? That’s awesome. He’s awesome in Heroes (I’ve only seen season one so I don’t need to know how bad the show might have become).

    • Jeffrey Pillow says:

      Very cool exhibit on Einstein you mentioned. I think we sometimes view these figures as so distant from us, when they do something like this, we realize whoa, these guys are flesh and blood humans. They actually exist. Could you imagine getting a letter from Albert Einstein? I mean, that right there, that’s special. Really special.

      Bill Nye needs to step his game up.

      • Gloria says:

        This is the exhibit – though this link doesn’t show you the letters at all. It’s great. They’re all framed. The original letters in the original handwriting – of both the children’s and Einstein’s.

        One elementary school boy wrote to Einstein complaining that he was struggling in math. Einstein replied, “Do not worry about your difficulties in mathematics; I can assure you that mine are still greater.”

        🙂

  3. Joe Daly says:

    I’m staring across the room right now, looking at my copy of Profit Over People. I share your joy. 🙂

    • Jeffrey Pillow says:

      Me too. I’m in my old bedroom back in my hometown as I type this. Did a little visiting this weekend. Profit Over People is being weighted down by Deterring Democracy. I guess you could say I used to be a Chomskyite. Ha.

  4. Greg Olear says:

    It’s too bad he couldn’t manufacture his consent to the inetreview…

  5. Ben Loory says:

    last year i wrote to danny rubin, who wrote groundhog day, the best movie ever made, to ask if he would write a blurb for my book. he said no, but he said it so nicely i’m still tempted to use his refusal as a blurb for my book….

    i’d be scared to open an email from noam chomsky.

    • Jeffrey Pillow says:

      Rubin’s a fantastic mind for writing Groundhog Day. Yes, very good film. You should use the blurb. Ha. That’d be great. Could you excerpt it? Instead of, “Ben – It sounds like a fascinating read but I am unable to write a blurb at this moment,” just have:

      . . . A FASCINATING READ . . . – Danny Rubin (Groundhog Day)

  6. Aaron Dietz says:

    I think I would be equally excited. Noam Chomsky is awesome.

    I was pleased as punch when one of the Mates of State actually returned a MySpace message once. I think it was probaby six or eight words, but still. Wow.

  7. Zara Potts says:

    Jeffrey, your enthusiasm and excitement is infectious! I love it!
    I remember getting an email from the Booker proze winner Keri Hulme where she told me a I had lovely name and I felt like framing it.
    I love how this ends.
    Perfect!

  8. Simon Smithson says:

    Oh, man, it’s the sweetest! I was so pleased to get a postcard from David Sedaris once. Freakin’ awesome.

    Chomsky for the win!

  9. D.R. Haney says:

    Something similar has happened to me a couple of times. I once got a postcard from the novelist Thomas McGuane, which, framed, was on my wall for a period. Then I made the mistake of writing again, and naturally heard nothing. I guess I didn’t know when to shut up. I learned.

  10. BellaTheHappyLoser says:

    Harland Williams the actor/comedian responded to me via e-mail once on my Movie Idea “Ma an Pa Kettle’s Haunted House”

  11. James D. Irwin says:

    Oh, I totally forgot.

    The guitarist from Grace Potter and the Nocturnals let me interview him via MySpace once, and I got messages from Brian Posehn and Patton Oswalt. Patton’s was a copied and pasted response, but just knowing that he took the time out to copy and paste a response meant something.

    I wrote a post about Brian Posehn’s message. It took him almost a year to respond, but his response was personal and very friendly. He also acknowledged the long response time with a self-depreacting joke that I can’t quite remember.

  12. Becky Palapala says:

    I had a brief email exchange with Steve Pinker (neuropsychology & language acquisition; formerly MIT, now Harvard). I don’t remember what I asked him. It was something about the evolution of art and language. The evolution of artful language.

    And we corresponded briefly and I, likewise, just about peed. He even took the time to send me two articles he thought might be of interest to me.

    That ANY professor at Harvard would just send random students from other universities scholastic help was crazy enough, but Steve Pinker is one of the few academics that I find genuinely interesting and exciting, not just because he’s brilliant but because he’s accessible.

    He doesn’t agree too well with Noam Chomsky, though. At least not entirely. I wonder if they were at MIT at the same time.

    I wonder if they threw ice cubes at each other in the cafeteria.

  13. Mary Richert says:

    Fantastic. I know exactly how you felt. I think the best minds are the ones who respond to e-mails, interview requests, and random reader phone calls graciously, even if only to say they don’t have time for an interview.

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