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For Common Things


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A Harvard graduate who was home schooled in rural West Virginia until he was fourteen, Jedediah Purdy is the author of four other books, Being America, The Meaning of Property, and A Tolerable Anarchy, After Nature. He received his J.D. from Yale Law School and is currently the Robinson O. Everett Professor of Law at Duke University.


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), PurdyÄlike the masters whose sturdy prose he emulates, from Thoreau to Wendell BerryÄdisplays 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 seasonedÄand ironicÄcommentators to shame. (Sept.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.

This work stands as a highly personal call for greater individual involvement in American political and public life, despite the collective cynicism of modern times. Purdy, currently a student at Yale University, sees modern mass media and elite schools as dominated by an ironic, detached view of the world. This view plus the general disillusionment in public institutions as a whole and government in particular fosters a narrow, self-serving attitude among too many people. Modern technology such as computers, home video players, and genetic engineering contains the potential for additional individual isolation from the larger society and the gradual shrinking of the public sphere. Purdy draws from numerous sources to make his point, ranging from Montaigne to Seinfeld" to emblematic 1990s periodicals such as Wired and Fast Company. He closes with a plea for a public-oriented society with realistic limits on private excesses. Though well written, well argued, and admirably passionate, Purdy's book finally adds little to the discussion on the future course of modern society. For larger public and academic libraries.ÄStephen L. Hupp, Urbana Univ. Lib., OH Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.

"Beautifully written, erudite, unpretentious and, most of all, earnest."--Newsday

"Purdy deserves high praise for vindicating the belief that civic engagement can still be meaningful, important and authentic."--Boston Book Review "The kind of book one finds recommending unreservedly to friends, colleagues, and neighbors."--The Christian Science Monitor

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