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 constitute a passionate and persuasive testament to the value of--and pressing need for--civic reengagement. Informed by a wide range of cultural and literary influences, from the works of Montaigne and Thoreau to the popularity of empty entertainment to the breathless chroniclers of an exploding technological age, Purdy raises potent questions about our stewardship of civic values. He argues for a ...
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Westminister, Maryland, U.S.A. 1999 Hardcover New 0375407081. FLAWLESS COPY, BRAND NEW, PRISTINE, NEVER OPENED-256 pages. Inside Flap Copy: Unusual and impressive, this is a ... twenty-four-year-old writer's ringing and heartfelt plea for renewed commitment to--and faith in--American civic and political life. Given the cynicism rampant in America today, Jedediah Purdy's endeavor may seem quixotic. But he persuasively argues the necessity and satisfactions of social and political reengagement and of renewed attention to the "common things" we all have a stake in: the environment, education, culture, law, and government. Drawing on a wide range of sources--from Thoreau to Seinfeld--he contemplates such questions as the use of irony in popular culture, the breakdown of our political processes, and the moral and legal dilemmas posed by technological advances. In these and other discussions, he lures us away from disbelief and detachment toward a sincere devotion to the healing and betterment of society. Homeschool Read more Show Less

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Jedediah Purdy calls For Common Things his "letter of love for the world's possibilities." Indeed, these pages constitute a passionate and persuasive testament to the value of--and pressing need for--civic reengagement. Informed by a wide range of cultural and literary influences, from the works of Montaigne and Thoreau to the popularity of empty entertainment to the breathless chroniclers of an exploding technological age, Purdy raises potent questions about our stewardship of civic values. He argues for a return to responsibility for the environment, education, culture, law, and government, and paints a vivid and convincing picture of the contemporary cynicism and malaise that infect policymaking and public discourse.

A Harvard graduate who was home schooled in rural West Virginia, 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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Editorial Reviews

Caleb Crain

In the first paragraph of his introduction, the author of For Common Things invokes the ambition at the heart of American philosophy: "to achieve...what Emerson's friend Henry David Thoreau called 'an original relation to the universe.'" Grand, mighty, famous words. They happen, however, to have been written by Thoreau's friend Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Meet Jedediah Purdy: 24, photogenic, sonorous and out of his depth. He comes equipped with a personal myth. Before he went to Harvard, he was home-schooled in West Virginia, where, unlike every other child in human history, he did not resent having to do chores. When asked or when "moved to," he dug the potatoes, fed the horses, milked the cows and skinned and gutted his pet steers. For recreation, he arranged wildflowers in his sister's hair and "slathered" mud on his naked body. Purdy was not taught, per se; he was " learn at home."

Now, it is one of the advantages of a traditional education that children who suck up to adults too cravenly are methodically cornered and beaten by their peers. Perhaps because he never enjoyed this behavior modification, Purdy seems to have internalized his parents' boilerplate unhindered. He has grown up to write a book of intellectual-fogy porn. In his bangs and cotton sweater with no shirt, he is gosh-darn wistful that the phrase "change the world" can "no longer be spoken without a reluctant irony." He identifies Michel de Montaigne as a "sixteenth-century Frenchman" and "the inventor of the essay in its modern form," as if in hopes of a pat on the head. He takes a dim view of newfangled things like Internet capitalism and genetic engineering, and he quotes W.E. Henley's "Invictus" ("I am the master of my fate/I am the captain of my soul") earnestly. He also quotes "Dover Beach" by Matthew Arnold, "Mending Wall" by Robert Frost, and "In Memory of W.B. Yeats" by W.H. Auden. Fine touchstones all, and not a one of them would make Norman Podhoretz uncomfortable.

It made me a little uncomfortable, however, to watch Purdy dragoon Auden into a campaign against Jerry Seinfeld. Seinfeld is "irony incarnate," Purdy warns, and as Auden said of Yeats, Seinfeld has become his admirers. No doubt he is now a whole climate of opinion, even. Irony is bad, Purdy explains, because "the point of irony is a quiet refusal to believe in the depth of relationships, the sincerity of motivation, or the truth of speech." Sounds pretty diabolical, this irony, which Purdy has a little trouble defining. He confuses it with sarcasm, cynicism, skepticism, narcissism, materialism and despair. Perhaps it's hard for him to track something so unfamiliar. After all, there was none of this lubricity of words and things in West Virginia, where he ate the cows he named.

Irony, of course, has limits, and all the best ironists know it. As Donald Barthelme once noted, "Irony is...destructive and what Kierkegaard worries about a lot is that irony has nothing to put in the place of what it has destroyed." It is no help to faith, and it's an impediment to empathy, as David Foster Wallace acknowledged in Infinite Jest: "An ironist in a Boston AA meeting is a witch in church. Irony-free zone. Same with sly disingenuous manipulative pseudo-sincerity."

Purdy, unfortunately, has not dislodged irony with faith. He has dislodged it with sly disingenuous manipulative pseudo-sincerity. Here is his thesis: Long ago, politics was "Promethean" -- that is, it aspired to "bring about basic changes in the human predicament." But then we lost Vietnam, Nixon resigned, the Berlin Wall fell and affirmative action floundered. Nowadays not even socialists find grand politics appealing. Nursing their wounds, good people right and left have retreated from the public sphere. They have insulated themselves from despair with a culture of irony, and they have abandoned politics as suitable only for therapeutic gestures and petty struggles for power. As a remedy, Purdy argues, we should learn to appreciate the value of politics with humble aspirations, like his mother's service on the local school board. "Precisely this kind of invaluable banality sustains our human world."

Humility is not a bad sermon, as sermons go. But it doesn't merit a book -- certainly not a book this treacly and disorganized. And despite his preaching, Purdy himself is no more humble than Uriah Heep and just as nasty. For example, in an attack on New Age delusions, he writes, "It is worth noting, however trivial it may seem, that the same cars whose bumpers announce 'Magic Happens' are likely to sport the slogan 'Mean People Suck.'" Well, no, it isn't worth noting, and it's snide. Along the way, Purdy also condescends to psychiatric medication ("pills to help people feel at home with any old thing"), identity politics, a fellow Harvard grad ("a warm young man"), management gurus, belief in angels and "plastic surgeons, gossip columnists, and unscrupulous tax attorneys." He devotes a weird amount of energy to attacking the magazines Wired and Fast Company for failing to achieve an original relation to the universe. Wired, he reveals in high dudgeon, is consumerist.

Purdy is not a disciplined thinker. Strip mining reminds him of integrity, which reminds him of Czeslaw Milosz's essays about Communist intellectuals. "Mending Wall" reminds him of neighborhood, which reminds him of genetic engineering. At the end of the book, struggling to come full circle, he returns to America's philosophical tradition. "Emerson distinguished in public and intellectual life between 'the party of memory and the party of hope,'" Purdy writes, finishing himself off better than he knows, because Emerson didn't write those words. "The party of memory and the party of hope" is Richard Rorty's eloquent paraphrase.

Actually, the Transcendentalists would have hated Purdy's ideal of humble political engagement. As Emerson half-complained in a lecture on the tribe, Thoreau and his ilk preferred to "hold themselves aloof." "They are not good citizens, not good members of society," Emerson wrote. "They do not even like to vote." They were, in other words, ironic. — Salon

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's 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), Purdy--like the masters whose sturdy prose he emulates, from Thoreau to Wendell Berry--displays 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 seasoned--and ironic--commentators to shame. (Sept.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
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.--Stephen L. Hupp, Urbana Univ. Lib., OH Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
With this, his first book, Purdy, at age 24, emerges as a fresh and vibrant voice, calling for the renewal of commitment to and faith in American civic and political life. The dominant personal manner in America today is irony, a bemused detachment from both the self and the very idea of common cooperation, aspirations, or projects; Seinfeld is everyman. Yet, while irony certainly insulates us from failure and disappointment, we continue, maintains Purdy, to long for a sense of wholeness, commitment, and real values. Once, such things could be found in politics, but Promethean dreams of social perfection and transformation are as extinct as the Soviet Union, and politics is now widely viewed—often for good reason—as a place for self-serving hypocrisy. So to find meaning we escape into what is unreal, into beliefs that guardian angels look out for us, into delusions of "the business-man-as-hero," of computer hacks as the boundless, limitless masters of cyberspace. But as the author carefully explains, these are all self-defeating fantasies; they are bound to disappoint, bound to drive us back to where we started, irony. He suggests instead reality, the sloppy, not always easy or successful reality of civic life. We need to care for those things that "must be common if they are to be at all": a justice system that is indeed just, an economy that works and is fair, a natural world that might persist beyond our own generation. Although the author himself does at times take on the proselytizing tone of the fantasy purveyors he decries, this is above all a realistic message. It's not manifesto for revolution but, more modestly, a simple call for tending to human possibilitiesthat in their frailty are in danger of being lost. Conservative in his respect for tradition, progressive in his calls for change, Purdy offers original insights by and for a generation that is too little heard from, or perhaps listened to. (Author tour)
From the Publisher
"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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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375407086
  • Publisher: Knopf Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 8/31/1999
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 226
  • Product dimensions: 5.22 (w) x 7.81 (h) x 1.06 (d)

Meet the Author

A Harvard graduate who was home schooled in rural West Virginia until he was fourteen, Jedediah Purdy currently studies law, environment, and social values at Yale.
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Read an Excerpt

For me, writing about these things requires writing about West Virginia. I was born and raised there, on a small hillside farm in the steep, ragged foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. That is where I first knew things that I was sure were real, trustworthy, and mine. It is still the source of my hopes for such things, and my confidence in them. I cannot talk about those things without talking about that place.

My parents came to West Virginia in 1974, the year I was born. They meant to live with few needs, to raise as much of their own food and do as much of their own work as possible, and to share what they could not do themselves with like-minded neighbors. As my father once said to me, they intended "to pick out a small corner of the world and make it as sane as possible." They chose a little more than a hundred acres, mostly steep, eroded pastures and second-growth oak woods, in the uneven bowl of a broad hollow. One side of the hollow was steep and wooded, the other gentler and cleared as meadow. At its back the bowl's lip lowered into a gap between two ridges. At the end of our property the hillsides drew into a narrow passage, where our creek leapt out into a waterfall, and our dirt road clung to the hillside.

Our home is still there, and the land is unchanged; but I am writing in the past tense. I am writing about how I began.

Our parents taught my younger sister and me at home. Or, rather, it is easiest to say that: we were "homeschoolers." Really, though, our parents did something more radical. They freed us to learn. There were no tests, no lesson plans, no assignments. We made no distinction between the summer and the school year, marked bythe appearance of yellow buses on the hard road that we could see below us when we walked a few hundred yards out the dirt driveway. Instead, we played endless games with sticks, pebbles, old clothes, mud that we slathered across our naked bodies, and wildflowers that we arranged in my sister's hair. We worked alongside our parents when we were asked or moved to: we dug potatoes, fed and curry-brushed the Percheron workhorses that my father used for plowing, haying, and logging, and herded our milk and beef cows from pasture to pasture. We took part in -- or more often were just welcome to listen to -- adult conversation as readily as we joined in children's play.

Although we did not precisely study, we read constantly, moving from topic to topic in a steadily expanding landscape of understanding, where each answered question occasioned a dozen, interconnected, further outcroppings of curiosity. If there could have been a map of our learning, it would have resembled nothing so much as a topographic sketch of my many daylong rambles, in which each newly discovered ridge could drop me into five unexplored hollows, and the streams of those hollows lead me to broader valleys, then back to other ridges, so that a picture of a place grew out of years of small, cumulative explorations.

We did not know the distinctions that most people take for granted, and which we have since learned to expect. Between adults and children there were few divisions. I counted old farmers, adult homesteaders like my parents, and other children equally among my friends. Older people addressed us children seriously, and we learned to approach them and one another in the same way. Home and school were as indistinguishable as doing and learning. The home was also the workplace, and the work that we and our parents did was visibly, tangibly devoted to building up and maintaining our place. Home was also the site of community and political life, where meetings took place for our food-buying cooperative, where neighbors gathered around a case of beer to hang the rafters of our timber-frame home in a long evening of daredevil carpentry, and where signs were painted and urgent meetings held when my mother made first a failed, and then a successful run for our county's school board.

Why is it so important that I describe this, my own private West Virginia? Partly, because that experience was an exercise in trust: my parents' trust that their children would want and be able to learn, without classrooms or textbooks and against the warnings of experts; that a marginal place, a small piece of land and an eccentric community, would be full of lessons enough to satisfy two young people; that they, our parents, could get by, learning new kinds of work for a new place and learning them well.

That time was, also, knowing exactly what we relied upon, what we could not do without: the rain that filled our springs or left them too dry for showers and laundry; the sunshine that dried newly cut hay, which a single thunderstorm could ruin; the natural gas, piped from a well on the hollow's steeper slope, that fired our stove and heaters and whose pipes froze on some cold winter nights; the sugar maples that, when there was a freeze by night and a thaw by day, ran with sweet, clear sap that we boiled down to syrup; the steers, which we had named as newborns and watched as they grew, and which we slaughtered and cleaned on cold winter days to put by a year's meat.

In all of these ways, West Virginia meant perfect confidence in the reality of things. I developed one of our hillside springs, digging out a natural seep, filling it with filtering gravel, and ditching out a pipe-run between it and our house, more than a hundred yards below. I drilled the boreholes that brought sap from the living wood of our maples. Although I never pulled the trigger when we slaughtered our steers, I helped to skin and gut a few that I had named. When we spoke about these things, there, we could be confident that our words sat squarely on things that we knew in common.

Maybe because so much of our talk had to do with these stable, certain, solid things, West Virginia was not an ironic place. There was not much talk of trust, hope, or reliance; but there was a great deal of each of those, so thoroughly present that there was no need to name them. They were bound up in the things we did name.

My upbringing was a blend of centuries, with strands of old American idyll and always elements of whatever year the calendar announced. Since leaving that time between times, I have never left behind a sense of betwixtness, of being from somewhere else -- another place and, in some measure, another period, another way of living. Wherever I found myself, I came as a visitor, often a willing participant, but never exactly a member. Something in me is always native to another place. But the more I am of these new places and populations, the more imperfectly I am of that anomalous and mainly irretrievable Appalachian childhood.

This is my answer to the question of why, to talk about America today, I first have to say a few things about my upbringing. In some ways, my experience of West Virginia is anomalous. In another way, though, I think that it is typical. We are, many of us, from several places, literally or figuratively. We are shaped by several species of loyalty and aspiration. It is not uncommon for us to find ourselves quietly defending a portion of our past from the demands of our very different present -- or drawing on that past, however openly or secretly, to enable us to pass through the present on terms that are partly our own.

More specifically, we nearly all have the sorts of experiences and memories that West Virginia gives me. They reassure us of, or keep us from entirely surrendering, the possibility of trust, of confidence in reality. I do not think that I can write intelligently about these things without naming them, describing them, trying to show the sorts of things that they are. And I cannot do that, with any strength or accuracy, unless I name the things that I have known, and still carry with me.

The burden of this book is twofold. It is that more things than we usually recognize may deserve our trust or hope. It is also that, if we care for certain things, we must in honesty hazard some hope in their defense. A good deal of what we value most, whether openly or in silence, clearly or confusedly, is necessarily common. These are things that affect us all, and we can only preserve or neglect them together. In the end they cannot be had alone.

Defending this idea means resisting the cheapening of words by thoughtless use and by the sophisticated and cynical manipulations of advertising and politics. Those uses make words mere tools for getting what their users want -- typically sales, sympathy, or votes. They also corrode our belief that words can have other kinds of power, that they can bring us nearer to things and help us to be more attentive to them.

One response is to try to draw out in words a hope that begins as intensely personal, trusting that another will say, "Yes, you are not alone in that." This is, perhaps, the work of a love letter, a form that is little practiced today. Such a letter brings something delicate and intimate into the light of shared vision. This disclosure is hazardous and frightening, but it is necessary because the kind of love that moves between people cannot survive in solitude. It must be made common if it is to live at all. Love letters, then, require the courage to stake oneself on an expression of hope that may very well come to nothing. They also indicate a perception of importance, a sense that some possibilities, however unlikely, are so important that not acknowledging them would be an act of terrible neglect.

I have written this book for two reasons: so that I will not forget what I hope for now, and because others might conclude that they hope for the same things. That would be the beginning of turning some of our private, half-secret repositories of hope and trust into common things. I think that some of them must be common, if they are to be at all.

We live in the disappointed aftermath of a politics that aspired to change the human predicament in elemental ways, but whose hopes have resolved into heavy disillusionment. We have difficulty trusting the speech and thought that we might use to try to make sense of our situation. We have left behind an unreal hope to fall into a hopelessness that is inattentive to and mistrustful of reality. What we might hope for now is a culture able to approach its circumstances with attention and care, and a politics that, as part of a broader responsibility for common things, turns careful attention into caring practice.

I mean this book as one invitation to turn our attention to essential and neglected things, and a suggestion about the shape that such renewed attention might take. It is one young man's letter of love for the world's possibilities, written in the hope that others will recognize their own desire in it and will respond. I cannot help believing that we need a way of thinking, and doing, that has in it more promise of goodness than the one we are now following. I want to speak a word for that belief, in the hope of an answer.

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Table of Contents

Ch. 1 Avoiding the World
Ch. 2 The Absence of Politics
Ch. 3 The Practice of the Public
Ch. 4 The Law of the Land: Political Choice and Attentiveness
Ch. 5 The Neighbor and the Machine: Technology and Responsibility
Ch. 6 Irony and Ecstasy
Selected Bibliography
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 12, 2001

    Critics Way Off Base. Purdy Definitely Worth Reading

    I always find it amazing that people have such yearning to criticize earnest works that they themselves could not pen. Is this book perfect? No. But it is one hell of an effort. His thoughts on the relevance of Montaigne were wonderful. So too was his determination not to be simplistic. Funny, so much of the criticism of him is that he is too simple, is out of his league. And yet these same critics would applaud him had he written a thoroughly ridiculous but provocative treatise with a simple, but unbelievable premise. They would do this as long as the book was all done according to accepted (read pedantic) standards and had an inner consistent logic, but no application to real life. Such books are legion in academia, with their feuding footnotes, and they are forgetable and soon forgotten. Instead, Purdy tries to thread the needle. He is in search of Truth, not tenure. He is attempting to give us a viable way to view our surroundings and the way in which we learn. Why do so many have a problem with this? Because Purdy understands,as did the great Aristotle, that humans can only be perfected in their nature by living together. But this is not the formulaic, simple but not applicable, cut-with-a-scapel distinction that the critics want. He does not tell you all the answers. Instead he invites you to step back even further and to look at the question and then how to possibly get the answer for yourself. His is not an arrogance of what is good for W. VA. is good for CA. Rather, he intimates that the Californian, as a human and in need of a community and place, must become attached to CA and his own 'place' and seek his own answers within that greater context, THEN view himself nationally, THEN internationally. This is very aristotelian in its understandings--this is how humans learn about themselves and their world. As Aristotle noted in The Politics: 'A human is BY NATURE a social (politikon) animal.' This is lost on the modern mindset. It is no surprise that the post-Cartesian (after 1650) need for certainty (one that Montaigne criticized 50 years even before Descartes attempted it) precludes the critics from appreciating this fine work. READ THIS BOOK!! And appreciate the fact that he DOES NOT give you all the answers. Rather, try to get into the stance he is advocating. Then, the magic will begin.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 8, 2001

    More Sincere Than Satisfying

    In this beautifully written, sensitive collection of essays, 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'--while this itself is not so bad, he seems to be perpetuating the syndrome that has failed his native state (West Virginia) over the years--the Ivy League graduate who comes back home with all the answers. He can be forgiven his arrogance because he clearly didn't mean to offend. And political work isn't easy in a state as schizophrenic as West Virginia, which drives a wedge between its Rockefellers and its Sons of the Soil. I hope Purdy follows his heart. But he's such a great writer I hope he continues with the essays and not fall into the trap of producing prose for Lexuses or California wine or whatever.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 27, 2000

    A Mind Sharp Enough to Glisten

    If you are smart enough to read a book like Purdy's, you are no doubt smart enough to already know a basic rule of intelligent reading: don't judge the hype, judge the book. The hype is that the author is mid-twenties and can actually think and write about issues and ideas of substance. That's true, but it's not terribly relevant. The book is quite astonishing on its own merits. Read it for the power of its langauge, and the beauty of its ideas, or vice versa. It will inspire you to reflect more deeply, see the culture you swim through every day more clearly, and may even engage you enough to write your own book. I hope so. Mr. Purdy has achieved a rare thing: a book that is wise, engaging, and controversial.

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