A Witness to Idealism
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 An exceptional blend of observation and reflection, literary report and personal revelation, that once again finds Coles (Psychiatry and Medical Humanities/Harvard; Anna Freud, 1992; etc.) exploring important social concepts--community service and the sources of altruism--with the tenacious moral energy that has characterized his writings for 30 years. From the first, Coles clearly cherished his encounters with people whose conduct claimed his imagination: In book after book, he presented them with dignity and respect. Here, he recalls the six-year-old integrating a southern school who sees ahead not trouble but opportunity; admires the white teacher who introduces Tillie Olsen's short story ``O Yes'' to a class of black middle- schoolers; learns from the Bowery bum who values not only the daily meal at his shelter but also the staff's acceptance of his angry moods; and understands the older tax lawyer who maintains that ``there's still a little of 1964 in me.'' Coles contends that-- while motives vary and overlap and stresses frequently wear people down--the satisfactions of service are plentiful and sustaining, conferring importance on small interactions and providing affirmation to those involved (often in place of, say, apparent social change). In his usual meandering way, he examines not only what those who serve mean to us and what their actions mean to them--most of his subjects emphatically resist the ``idealist'' designation--but also his own part in the equation (as volunteer and witness) and his enduring sources of inspiration: the examples of his own parents; of novelists whose ideas he finds edifying; and of mentors familiar from earlier works. Early on in his career, Coles abandoned the jargon of psychoanalysis and staked out his own territory--and a grateful audience. This work, a wellspring for those touched by ``national service'' headlines, echoes the spiritual tones of previous books and secures the author's place as a peerless interpreter of individual initiative and moral direction.

Pub Date: Sept. 15th, 1993
ISBN: 0-395-63647-7
Page count: 384pp
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15th, 1993


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