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For Common Things: Irony, Trust, and Commitment in America Today Hardcover – August 31, 1999

88 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews Review

Jedediah Purdy is only in his mid-20s, but there are times when, working your way through Purdy's precisely crafted sentences, you would swear that the author is an old man. The problem with the world today, Purdy says, is that too many of us have withdrawn from it. "Often it begins in ironic avoidance," he writes, "the studied refusal to trust or hope openly. Elsewhere it comes from reckless credulity, the embrace of a tissue of illusions bound together by untested hope." He urges a revitalization of the notion of public responsibility, "the active preservation of things that we must hold in common or, eventually, lose altogether." Purdy is well aware that politics, the most visible of the public arenas, is nowadays regarded as a training ground for opportunists and hypocrites. But he insists that if we invest our lives with a dignity rooted in "the harmony of commitment, knowledge, and work," even politics might be restored.

For Common Things is quick to make pronouncements along the lines of "Today's young people are adept with phrases that reduce personality to symptoms," without mentioning that it was their therapy-happy baby boomer parents who introduced words like passive-aggressive and repressed into their vocabulary--and without broaching the possibility that it was the combined failure of the '60s counterculture movement and the loss of faith in government attendant to the Watergate scandal that nurtured cynicism and ironic detachment within the boomers. (Well, perhaps solving the problem is more important than assigning the blame.) At times, the Harvard-educated author's erudition gets the best of him, and his prose takes on a certain academic stiffness. (One wonders, at such moments, if perhaps the book has its roots in a senior thesis.) But when Purdy focuses on personal matters related to his homeschooled West Virginia upbringing, one can detect traces of a passion and intensity that would be well worth developing in future writings. Which is not to say that Purdy doesn't feel strongly about the restoration of civic commitment; this book stands as proof that he does. But anybody can--and many people do--make impersonal assessments of the state of the world; there is a story, however, that only Jedediah Purdy can tell us about community and responsibility. The traces of that story in For Common Things may leave many readers clamoring for more details. --Ron Hogan

From Publishers Weekly

What could a 24-year-old Harvard graduate home-schooled by his "back-to-the-land" parents in rural West Virginia possibly have to say about the American soul? Much that is worth heeding. Purdy calls his book "a defense of love letters," noting that such letters "indicate a certain kind of courage, a willingness to stake oneself on an expression of hope that may very well come to nothing." Here, he expresses his hope for the public life of America. His enemy is the irony that he feels pervades our culture, a culture in which "even in solitary encounters with nature... we reluctant ironists realize that our pleasure in these places and the thoughts they stir in us have been anticipated by a thousand L.L. Bean catalogues." Whether writing about the coal industry's depredations in Appalachia or about the narrowing of politics (no one dares talk about a Great Society anymore), PurdyAlike the masters whose sturdy prose he emulates, from Thoreau to Wendell BerryAdisplays an acute awareness of the connection between private and public virtue. Purdy has an unerring ear for how language, and thus the expression of humanity, has been degraded, whether by political rhetoric, ad-speak or the way that sitcoms present the self. His book is inspiring in its thoughtfulness, in its commitment to the idea that politics should be about more than divvying up the pie and in the care with which it is written. The ideas expressed aren't complicated, but Purdy grapples with them with a seriousness that puts more seasonedAand ironicAcommentators to shame. (Sept.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; 1st edition (August 31, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375407081
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375407086
  • Product Dimensions: 7.8 x 5.2 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (88 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #125,586 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

51 of 60 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on November 19, 1999
Format: Hardcover
I have just finished the book and I have also read the reviews here on the website. I will concur with other Jed defenders here that I, too, am a bit taken aback by the somewhat less than civil tone employed by his detractors. But then again, these are the very reactions that Purdy is talking about when he says we are afraid to make our deepest hopes and desires publicly known for fear of trivialization by others. Yet he still earnestly writes this self-described "love letter", in hopes that others might feel their own earnest spirit calling from within. As he says in the preface, he hopes the book may cause another to say, "Yes, you are not alone in that". As a 25 year old myself, it was refreshing to see such a fresh perspective coming from my generation. Although I was always a Seinfeld fan, I am beginning to realize the damage an emotionally devoid, self-interested "That's a shame" response to things tickling our conscience is having on our relationships with each other and our earth. Although I do not consider myself an intellectual (I read the book with a Webster's Unabridged, looking up "Promethean" early was wise.) on Purdy's level, I still feel a strong connection to Jedediah's sense of hope, and perhaps to dispelling the prevailing general sense that the trajectory we are on, as a society and planet, is irreversible. I am grateful to Jedediah for putting his heart on public display, regardless of the slings and arrows he may bear for it. In a time when people seem to be retreating further and further away from the public domain, taking their best hopes and dreams with them, Purdy stands his ground there with his heart on his sleeve, for all to see.
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42 of 49 people found the following review helpful By David A. Aldrich on November 14, 1999
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Through Plato's pen, Socrates said that an "unexamined life is not worth living." Now through the earnest words of a recent Harvard graduate, a twenty-four-year-old examines our modern lives and offers us a prescription for what ails us. The ailment is irony, or more finely put, "ironic detachment." Its chief avatar is the television character Jerry Seinfeld, who moves in and out of relationships with all the enthusiasm of a jaded, I've-seen-it-all-and-could-care-less New Yorker, which, of course, he is. Written by Jedediah Purdy, For Common Things: Irony, Trust and Commitment in America Today targets an array of cultural arbiters who value cleverness over curiosity, style over substance, self-awareness over social immersion, and, above all, the private over the public. For his efforts, Purdy has reaped scornful reproaches from the very class of ironists he preemptively criticizes. As someone more than twice Purdy's age, I am both amazed and tinged with a bit of envy that a young creature of a West Virginia hollow could possess so much erudition, wisdom, and perspicacity. I dare say that most twenty-four-year-olds could not spell Montaigne let alone quote his magnificent expressions. But Purdy-drawing upon the writings of the 16th-century French essayist; the observations of Tocqueville (which serve as epigraphs in Purdy's book); the philosophies of Kant, Rousseau, and Hegel; the life and words of Wendell Berry; and the profound experiences of Adam Michnik, the brave Polish dissident who retained his integrity as his country succumbed to capitalist rot-urges us to reject ironic detachment in favor of a renewed commitment to the commonweal. Chief among his detractors is Roger D.Read more ›
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37 of 43 people found the following review helpful By Allen Smalling TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on February 6, 2000
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
for the paperback instead of letting media buzz influence my choice of reading matter. "For Common Things," a cycle of six long essays in book form, was engaging enough but not the "wowser" I thought it would be from all the hype it had gotten.
Essays nos. 1-3 and 6 are abstruse and interrelated, nos. 4 and 5 are more specific, dealing with environmental politics and genetic engineering. Purdy puts the blame on "irony" for most of our current ills. He can get away with this because he never defines irony and so it can mean almost anything bad--not just the tragedy of unintended consequences but cynicism, narcissism, despair, political apathy, that jaundiced feeling, hard-heartedness, and so on. He makes a pretty good case for giving up on all this irony and becoming more emotional, more risk-taking, even taking a chance on politics--but then, it has to be HIS type of politics, as we find out in chapters 4 and 5.
Purdy's prose style is so beautiful I had almost forgotten he is only 25 until he veered into "political correctness"--that and the fact he is forever reminding us of how interconnected the human species is (honestly, he does everything but quote John Donne's "No man is an island").
I wish I could have given "For Common Things" four stars and I would have if the argument had flowed a little more smoothly and if the author had been a little less self-absorbed. But he will undoubtedly mellow with age. Most of what I've seen written about him is unfair in the extreme: refusal to argue the merits of his book, shallow ad hominem attacks on his West Va. background and Ivy League education (some even want to pillory him for being a hick AND an East Coast snob--doubly unfair and doubly irrelevant). The book is worth reading, but don't push anyone out of the way to do so.
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