Why You Shouldn't Buy Presents for the Holidays
Princeton University Press: 174 pp., $9.95
Leave it to an economist to make an impassioned argument for why we shouldn't give gifts, especially during the holidays. Joel Waldfogel's "Yuletide research" led him to the conclusion many of us came to years ago but have felt powerless to act upon. "Where others see hearthside scenes of sharing," Waldfogel sees "a large and organized institution for value destruction, hiding in plain sight but obscured for most people by their own childhood memories." Each winter, we spend $85 billion on gifts that are, in economic terms, a "deadweight loss." "What's distinctive about all this spending is that, except for the prearranged gifts for teenagers, the choices are not made by the ultimate consumers. For the rest of the year, the people who will ultimately use the stuff choose what they buy. As a result, buyers normally choose things they correctly expect to enjoy using." Santa, nicknamed by Waldfogel "the red tornado," is more likely to give the sweater with the rooster, the cribbage board and the singing fish than presents recipients actually want. What to do? You can't, even this economist admits, give cash. You can give gift cards or, what is Waldfogel's best solution, charity gift cards. It's a wonderful idea. I just don't know how to break it to my kids.
Why Architecture Matters
Yale University Press: 274 pp., $26
"Architecture begins to matter," writes veteran architecture critic Paul Goldberger, "when it goes beyond protecting us from the elements, when it begins to say something about the world -- when it begins to take on the qualifications of art." Somewhere in the landscape between art and practicality are buildings that cause us to feel and think; these are the buildings that, like art, can make our lives better. Goldberger explores the intentions of architects -- the way a beautiful cornice on a 9th Avenue tenement in New York City can create a civilized environment, the way Frank Lloyd Wright created an "ennobling" building for workers at the Johnson's Wax Building in Racine, Wis., the way the Vietnam memorial in Washington, D.C., serves a civic purpose. He explores the ways that different people react to different spaces. A building one person finds exhilarating will make another feel adrift. Like many readers, I find graceful explanations of the effects of architecture on my life extremely helpful; the scale and depth of the actual experience can make it difficult to locate and describe. Goldberger walks us around the globe, ending with a chapter on cities, community and new urbanism. Transcendent architecture, he writes, has the power to invoke "that aspect of human aspiration that makes us want to connect to what has come before, to make of it something different and our own, and to speak to those who will follow us."
Reclaiming Education for All of Us
New Press: 178 pp., $19.95
You can't judge a child by his test scores, writes Mike Rose, a professor at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. If education helps to create citizens and not just economic entities, we need a clearer vision of what education means in a democracy. More meditation than diatribe, Rose puts into clear words what so many of us feel is lacking in our children's education. "We live in an anxious age and seek our grounding, our assurances in ways that don't satisfy our longing -- that, in fact, make things worse. We've lost hope in the public sphere and grab at private solutions, which undercut the sharing of obligation and risk and keep us scrambling for individual advantage. We've narrowed the purpose of schooling to economic competitiveness, our kids becoming economic indicators. We've reduced our definition of human development and achievement -- that miraculous growth of intelligence, sensibility, and the discovery of the world -- to a test score." While he does not provide many practical suggestions for improvements, Rose recalibrates our thinking in this little book, the first step toward change.