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For Common Things: Irony, Trust, and Commitment in America Today Hardcover – August 31, 1999
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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 The problem with the world today, Purdy says, is that too many of us have withdrawn from it.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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Top Customer Reviews
Even if it is written more than 10 years ago, it is still actual, not only in American society, but also in nascent democracies, like the ones in Eastern Europe. The author also provides an image of how democracy turned to be after the fall of Communism in Central and Eastern Europe, where only few dissidents stood by and fought for their beliefs, while people just went on with their lives, leading to massive corruption and lawlessness. It should be a warning sign for all those who think that being distant about what happens in politics might keep the status quo, but not being involved as a citizen might lead to power being split only between few.
For me it was a good read and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to see the society nowadays through the eyes of a non-ironic and what might be the consequences of non-commitment in social life, even in the most renown and strong democracy in the world.
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.