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For Common Things:
Irony, Trust and Commitment in America Today

by Jedediah Purdy

ISBN 0375706917 / 9780375706912 / 0-375-70691-7
Publisher Vintage
Language English
Edition Softcover
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Book summary

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 The problem with the world today, Purdy says, is that too many of us have withdrawn from it.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 [via]