FOR COMMON THINGS: Irony, Trust, and Commitment in America Today

FOR COMMON THINGS: Irony, Trust, and Commitment in America Today

Patrick Glynn

By Jedediah Purdy. Knopf. 226 pp. $20

Read Time:
2m 39sec

It is with trepidation that someone approaching 50 opens a book on politics by a 24-year-old. Trepidation and a little guilt, knowing the responsibility my self-indulgent generation bears for debasing our culture and politics over the past quarter-century. But For Common Things proves reassuring rather than dismaying, a demonstration of the human capacity for moral self-renewal.

Purdy protests eloquently against the ugliness and cynicism of public life. He takes his stand against the manipulative language and symbols in politics; against the neglect of our common public space; against the pervasive inauthenticity of our media-driven existence; against the overwhelming posture of "irony" that, he shrewdly argues, has come to dominate contemporary social life (nicely exemplified in the sitcom Seinfeld). Echoing the communitarian and civil society movements, though in terms quite striking and often original, he argues for a rededication to civic life based on a bold, even openly naive reaffirmation of political hope. "If we care for certain things," he writes, "we must in honesty hazard some hope in their defense."

Are we hearing, at last, the stirrings of a new cohort, a successor to the famously shallow Generation X? It is tempting to think so, but Purdy may not typify his age group. He was raised and home-schooled in rural West Virginia by parents who, in his father’s words, sought "to pick out a small corner of the world and make it as sane as possible." Although Christian fundamentalists dominate today’s home-schooling movement, Purdy’s parents seem to be secular, liberal, and utopian minded enough to carve out an "intentional" lifestyle in the Appalachians. From home-schooling, Purdy went on to three of the country’s most elite educational institutions: Philips Exeter Academy, Harvard, and Yale (where he now studies). In between, there were breaks for environmental activism in West Virginia and a trip to newly democratic Central Europe, both discussed here.

Not even the finest education could explain the grace of this young writer’s prose, whose quiet rhythms echo the arcadian music of his childhood and hark back to the way language was used before the information age. "What has so exhausted the world for us?" he writes. "For one, we are all exquisitely self-aware. Around us, commercials mock the very idea of commercials, situation comedies make being a sitcom their running joke, and image consultants detail the techniques of designing and marketing a personality as a product. We can have no intimate moment, no private words of affection, empathy, or rebuke that we have not seen pronounced on a 30-foot screen before an audience of hundreds. . . . Even in solitary encounters with nature... our pleasure... has been anticipated by a thousand L.L. Bean catalogues, Ansel Adams calendars, and advertisements."

Despite a few weak spots—he too hastily dismisses sincere conservative forms of civic activism, and his treatment of religion is superficial—For Common Things is the work of an unusually perceptive social observer. If one wishes to see the world through the eyes of a very intelligent 24-year-old, this is an excellent place to begin.

—Patrick Glynn


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