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

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9780375706912: For Common Things: Irony, Trust and Commitment in America Today

Jedediah Purdy calls For Common Things his "letter of love for the world's possibilities." Indeed, these pages--which garnered a flurry of attention among readers and in the media--constitute a passionate and persuasive testament to the value of political, social, and community reengagement. Drawing on a wide range of literary and cultural influences--from the writings of Montaigne and Thoreau to the recent popularity of empty entertainment and breathless chroniclers of the technological age--Purdy raises potent questions about our stewardship of civic values.

Most important, Purdy offers us an engaging, honest, and bracing reminder of what is crucial to the healing and betterment of society, and impels us to consider all that we hold in common.

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 The problem with the world today, Purdy says, is that too many of us have withdrawn from it.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

"At fourteen, I entered public high school in West Virginia. My little band of homeschooling friends had disappeared, most gone from the state, and I was beginning to feel an adolescent's frustration at spending days with only my family on our farm. I spent three years at Calhoun County High School, none of them easy. I arrived knowing nothing of the subtle codes and taboos of teen culture, and came on that knowledge hard, in the rough-and-tumble of social jockeying. Academically, meanwhile, I was stagnant, teaching myself most of what I learned and losing the time when there was nothing to learn.
        
At the end of three years, I was more easily a part of the place than I would have imagined when I began. However, I also sensed that there was no growth for me there, and that I should leave. I wrote away to the only private school I had heard of, Phillips Exeter in New Hampshire, and was offered a scholarship for my senior year. That year was in many ways a less radical transition than the move from home to public school had been. Although the elite culture of New England was novel and odd, I was for the first time in an institution where students and teachers alike respected intellectual seriousness, and where my excitement about a novel or a theory might be understood and shared. I worked hard and flourished.
        
When that year ended, I went back to West Virginia. Four years of unbroken schooling seemed enough to me, and I wanted to do practical work as an adult before beginning college. I spent the summer working as a carpenter, and in the fall spent my savings in backpacking alone through Europe. In the winter, I returned again and took a job with the West Virginia Environmental Council, the state's only large environmental organization. I spent the next eight months at the state capitol, in the coalfields, at public meetings and in private homes across the state, working with community members in local environmental battles, with legislators in policy disputes, and always in an effort to bring the two together, to draw participants in local issues into a statewide network of political engagement. I came to know West Virginia better than I ever had before, partly because my work now required attention to the state as a whole, partly because I was for the first time there by decision rather than by happenstance.
        
During that year, I applied to Harvard, where I began in the fall of 1993. The next four years were extraordinary for their intellectual richness, and, as time went on, for the richness of their friendships as well. I studied the history of ideas and moral philosophy, worked in campus journalism and progressive politics, and completed a thesis on Michel de Montaigne. At the same time, in private essays and works for friends, I continued to explore the themes that would become For Common Things.
        
On graduating, I began writing essays for the American Prospect, a magazine of progressive journalism and opinion. I spent much of the next year concentrating on that work and developing some of the themes that would come into For Common Things, including my encounter with Eastern Europe and my intial effort at describing the culture of irony.

At the end of that year, I entered school again, this time at Yale, to study law, property, and environmental and cultural values. I am particularly interested in the variety of ways that we can conceive of the natural world: as a simple source of resources or as something more
integrally and intrinsically valuable. I am also intensely interested in the history of conceptions of politics and citizenship, and especially of the idea that democracy is not just a structure of government but is related to deep ideas of human excellence and flourishing. However, these projects are only beginning, and I will have to report more on them later.


For Common Things has been developing in me for at least six years. I have had intimations of it, in the way that anyone who writes does: hints that something is taking form, slowly adding layer upon layer until it is ready for expression.
        
The essential impulse of the book is to draw out the unity concealed in disparate things, places, styles, persons. It is an attempt to marry two forms that I have pursued by impulse since I began writing: the essay and the poem. Essays follow idea to idea, experience to experience, in a wild ride of association, the zig-zagging path that Emerson said revealed a pattern only when viewed from a proper distance. The essay is bold, a little reckless, uncertain of its ground until it stands or collapses at the end. Its ideal result is a map of a continent, or even the famous earth photograph.
        
A poem, by contrast, burrows as deeply as possible into a particular moment or location. It attends to every texture, every line and grain, every border of light and shadow. It looks until there is nothing more to see, and then closes its eyes and waits. Sometimes, then, a lesson comes; more often there is only the place, and the pleasure of keen attention. The poem produces, perhaps, a topographic map of a tiny watershed, or more likely a pen-and-ink sketch of a piece of hickory bark.
        
In this book I am trying to make sense of broad currents of culture and politics. This is an essay's ambition. However, it is an ambition that requires tempering by the honesty of the poem, which always refuses stereotype and polemic in order to see its object as it is, rather than as it would be convenient to the writer to have it be.
        
I think that this is necessary because the public faces of the culture today are defined by insistent flatness, a wary, ironic, skeptical stance toward all things, people, and pronouncements. I have been conducting a running argument with this attitude since I first met it, late in adolescence. Yet more and more it seems to me that to attack this attitude is only to reinforce it, to add debunking to debunking, an eye for an eye until every eye is jaded. Instead, what is required is a proposal that the ironic attitude is not true, that we do, and must, hope for, trust, and risk more than that attitude admits. Making this proposal means trying to describe our situation sensitvely and carefully enough to show that it contains these impulses toward, even these requirements of, hope. It means drawing contour and texture out of a relentlessly flat map, showing that our cultural topography is richer than we have recently acknowledged.
        
The purpose of that evocation is to make the case that, although we do not always admit it, we inhabit a world worthy of our love. This is a young man's hope, wagered against a time inclined to doubt. It is the reason for this book.


On homeschooling

My younger sister and I were homeschooled on our family's hillside farm in West Virginia. Until I turned fourteen and entered high school, we had no tests, scant lesson plans, and few assignments. Instead, we were free to read, to play, and to work alongside our parents. We made no distinction between the summer and the school year, marked by the appearance of yellow buses on the paved road that we could see when we walked a few hundred yards out our dirt driveway. Learning did not have its own season, room, or time of day. Learning was living with a child's curiosity, and there was no living without learning.
        
We constantly read, drew our adult acquaintances into long explanations of their work and ideas, and undertook projects of our own to test what we had seen and heard. If our learning had been rendered as a map, it would have resembled nothing so much as a topographic sketch of
many day-long rambles, in which each newly discovered ridge could drop me into five unexpected hollows, and the streams of those hollows led me to broader valleys, and then back to other ridges, so that a picture of a place grew out of years of small, cumulative explorations.
        
I have always believed since that homeschooling's great gift is the belief that living and learning are inseparable. Not all the homeschoolers I knew became star students, although some did. However, every one of them discovered some native talent or inclination early in life, and wove years of education around it. One played piano for five hours each d-ay, another disassembled and rebuilt gasoline engines, a third designed shortwave radios, still another learned the history of the Civil War at a level that college students would envy--all at an age when most students are moving by rote through the multiplication tables. We homeschoolers learned arithmetic too, but by way of these personal projects, these explorations that we wanted to undertake above anything else in the world. Because we learned through these, learning was itself what we wanted above all else.
        
When children's education becomes an obligation rather than a pleasure, something has gone wrong. Young people are by nature explorers of an endlessly fascinating world, and the work of education should be to preserve that spirit. Homeschooling aims at this preservation, and often succeeds. It is an expression of trust, in children's delight and in the world that can delight them.

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Book Description Random House USA Inc, United States, 2000. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. Jedediah Purdy calls For Common Things his letter of love for the world s possibilities. Indeed, these pages--which garnered a flurry of attention among readers and in the media--constitute a passionate and persuasive testament to the value of political, social, and community reengagement. Drawing on a wide range of literary and cultural influences--from the writings of Montaigne and Thoreau to the recent popularity of empty entertainment and breathless chroniclers of the technological age--Purdy raises potent questions about our stewardship of civic values. Most important, Purdy offers us an engaging, honest, and bracing reminder of what is crucial to the healing and betterment of society, and impels us to consider all that we hold in common. Bookseller Inventory # AAC9780375706912

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