Optimist In a Jaded Age

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"It was a very suave but very ignorant self-satisfaction," Purdy says of the Exeter atmosphere. "There was this sense of casual entitlement." Later he was admitted to Harvard, where he became, in his own dramatic phrase, "obsessed with ethics." Listening to Purdy describe his zeal for Kant and Hegel, it's easy to see why certain critics can't help poking fun at him. Why so serious? And considering the status of Purdy's heroes--from the great French essayist Montaigne to the brave Polish dissident Adam Michnik--the objects of his derision seem like straw men. Purdy singles out for special scorn management guru Tom Peters, who teaches disciples to think of themselves as commercial, brand-named products; the cyber- magazines Wired and Fast Company, which promote, in Purdy's view, greed and self-absorption; and Jerry Seinfeld, whom Purdy calls, in a tone once reserved for Satan and serial killers, "irony incarnate."

Despite its publisher's hope that Purdy's book will hit it big with thoughtful twentysomethings starved for meaning in a vacuous time, For Common Things is an arduous read that would test the syntactical skills of a tenured professor. It is not the accessible pop polemic some reviewers have made it out to be but an achingly ambitious manifesto from a very young young man who happens to be, alarmingly often, eloquent beyond his years. Insufferably smug, however, Purdy is not, particularly when it comes to his anointment as an instant wise man for the millennium. "Irony," he elegantly reflects, "is probably the only appropriate response to walking by a bookstore and seeing your face in the window." There--a joke.

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