Nora occupies a particular position that he himself qualifies as on "the side" of the French historical sphere.
In the 1950s he took hypokhâgne and khâgne at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand but, contrary to a persistent legend, he was not accepted at the École Normale Supérieure. Thereafter, he obtained a bachelier ès lettres (equivalent to the Bachelor of Arts) degree in philosophy. He passed the agrégation d'histoire in 1958.
He was a teacher at the Lycée Lamoricière d'Oran in Algeria until 1960. He wrote book about it, published under the title Les Français d'Algérie (The French of Algeria) (1961).
From 1961 to 1963, he was a resident at the Thiers Foundation. From 1965 to 1977 he was first assistant and then lecturer at the Institut d'Études Politiques de Paris (Paris Institute of Political Science). Since 1977 he has been the director of studies at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (School of higher studies in social sciences). in 2014 Nora received the Dan David Prize Award.
Concurrently, Nora had managed an important career in publishing. He joined Éditions Julliard in 1964, where he created the Archives paperback collection. In 1965 he joined Éditions Gallimard: the publishing house, which already had a good marketshare in literature, wanted to develop its social sciences sector. It was Pierre Nora who achieved this mission by creating two important collections, the Library of social sciences in 1966 and the Library of histories in 1970, as well as the Témoins collection in 1967.
At Éditions Gallimard, Nora published in these collections that he was directing, important works which generally constitute indispensable references in their fields of research, in particular:In the Library of social sciences, Raymond Aron (Les Étapes de la pensée sociologique, 1967), Georges Dumézil (Mythe et épopée, 1968–1973), Marcel Gauchet (Le Désenchantement du monde, 1985), Claude Lefort (Les Formes de l'histoire, 1978), Henri Mendras (La Seconde Révolution française, 1988), Michel Foucault (Les Mots et les Choses, 1966, and L'Archéologie du savoir, 1969).
In the Library of histories, François Furet (Penser la Révolution française, 1978), Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie (Montaillou, 1975, best sale of the collection with 145 000 copies), Michel de Certeau (L'Écriture de l'histoire, 1975), Georges Duby (Le Temps des cathédrales, 1976), Jacques Le Goff (Saint Louis, 1997), Jean-Pierre Vernant (L'Individu, la mort, l'amour, 1989), Maurice Agulhon (Histoire vagabonde, 1988–1996), Michel Foucault (Histoire de la folie à l'âge classique, 1972, Surveiller et punir, 1975, and Histoire de la sexualité, 1976–1984).
Foreign researchers whom he introduced in France, like Ernst Kantorowicz (Les Deux Corps du roi, 1959, published in 1989), Thomas Nipperdey (Réflexions sur l'histoire allemande, 1983–1992, in 1992), Karl Polanyi (La Grande Transformation, 1944, in 1983).
This important role gave to Nora a certain power in French publishing and he was also the object of criticism. To begin, he refused in 1997 to translate Eric Hobsbawm's work, The Age of Extremes (1994), because of that author's "attachment to the revolutionary cause." Nora explained that context of hostility towards Communism in France was not appropriate to that type of publication, that all the editors, "like it or not, had an obligation to take account of the intellectual and ideological situation in which they had written their works".
In May 1980, Nora founded at Gallimard the review Le Débat with philosopher Marcel Gauchet; this quickly became one of the major French intellectual reviews. He had participated at the Saint-Simon Foundation, created in 1982 by François Furet and Pierre Rosanvallon and dissolved in 1999.
He opposed himself to the law of 23 February 2005 "supporting national recognition and national taxation in favour of French repatriations" and cosigned a petition in the daily Libération entitled "Liberté pour l'histoire". This law, at line 2 of article 4, was abrogated on 15 February 2006, establishing that research programmes must be accorded more importance in lieu of French overseas presence and that the programmes of study came to recognize the positive role.
Nora is equally well known for having directed Les Lieux de Mémoire, three volumes which gave as their point the work of enumerating the places and the objects in which are the incarnate national memory of the French.
Nora's book Les Français d'Algérie (The French of Algeria) (1961) has received scholarly criticism for its bias against French Algerians ("Pied Noirs") – a prejudice held by many French intellectuals of the time. Nora posited that the French Algerians (or settlers) were different from the French of the Metropol. His opinions were developed from his two years as a high school teacher in Algiers. "The French of Algeria" is described as synthesizing "a self-righteous anti-pied noir discourse". [Todd Shepard, "The Invention of Decolonization", Cornell University Press, 2006, pp. 195 – 204.] "The French of Algiers" is often held out as a scholarly work, but as David Prochaska, American historian of French Algeria points out, it is in fact "not based on original research and is devoid of the usual scholarly apparatus". [David Prochaska, "Making Algeria French: Colonialism in Bône , 1870 – 1920", Cambridge, 1990, 6, quotes from Pierre Nora, "Les Français d’Algérie", preface by Charles-Andre Julien (Paris, 1961), 87, 98.]
Nora is Jewish.
Since 2012, he has lived with French journalist Anne Sinclair, ex-wife of former politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn.