Editor’s Choice November 2006

Babes in Toyland

What to read this month

It’s this country’s favorite form of public interaction and, along with watching television, of recreation. It claims more workers, and fills more space, than any other pursuit—considerably more nonresidential construction is devoted exclusively to it, though you can also do it in museums, houses of worship, airports, and hospitals. It wards off depression, emotional and economic. It reflects and promotes subtle and seismic shifts in societal attitudes, so it’s at once an unstoppable engine of change and among the most fickle, unpredictable, and vulnerable of human activities. It’s the emblem of modernity. Shopping. And in its voracious way it’s also become an increasingly fashionable subject for books.

To be sure, novelists have long probed the topic: Balzac, in a celebrated passage in Lost Illusions, conveyed the fresh seductiveness of the goods on display in the wooden galleries of the Palais-Royal; Flaubert dissected Emma Bovary’s shopping-induced raptures; Zola, in The Ladies’ Paradise, his fictionalized account of Paris’s Le Bon Marche, portrayed both the nitty-gritty workings and the intoxicating allure of that new type of emporium, the department store; Dreiser depicted the novel and intimate pull that consumer goods exercised on the purchaser as his protagonist wandered The Fair, Chicago’s lower-middle-class department store, in Sister Carrie. And shopping is the subject of what has emerged as the greatest ruin of twentieth-century cultural criticism: Walter Benjamin’s pastiche, The Arcades Project—an undeveloped and, at more than 1,000 pages, unfinished (!) minute examination of nineteenth- century Paris’s glass-roofed shopping galleries (distant but distinct precursors of the shopping mall) and of the emergence of consumer capitalism.

But thanks to the cultural- and women’s- studies fevers of the 1980s and their concomitant—the typical humanities professor’s quaint desire to be both a hipster and a scold—the flow of books is ceaseless. Just on the history of department stores there are more than a dozen titles, including Erika Rappaport’s pioneering Shopping for Pleasure, which cogently argues, to put it far too simplistically, that the provision of ladies’ toilets in nineteenth-century London department stores helped make it possible for women to enter the public sphere (after all, a respectable woman could hardly go about town if there was no place for her to relieve herself) and hence helped catalyze the suffragette movement. Not surprisingly, most of the books are god-awful, though the exceptions include Rachel Bowlby’s witty, incisive Carried Away, a feminist, psychoanalytically inflected history of and meditation on the subject, a work that’s exquisitely sensitive to the exhilarating and stupefying nature of the activity it exposes.

Certainly the grooviest of the tomes is the nearly six-pound, 800-page Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping, the product of a Harvard-based venture led by starchitect Rem Koolhaas—whose showmanship contains more than a whiff of quackery—that explores the relationship between shopping and “the urban condition.” Engorged with photos, collages, and maps; cacophonous, often illuminating, sometimes misleading charts and graphs; and forty-two essays by sixteen architects and critics, the book is as clamorous as Koolhaas’s architecture. (Some of the essays, such as those by Sze Tsung Leong and Chuihua Judy Chung, are sharp and quirky, others not so, including Koolhaas’s own pretentious, incoherent contribution.) In its chaotic range and ambition, and in its focus both on the broadest societal and economic developments and on minutiae (foot- and car-traffic patterns, marketing techniques, the innovations—lighting, sprinkler systems, sidewalks, escalators, air conditioning—that enhance shopping’s scale and scope), it’s almost certainly inspired, for better and worse, by The Arcades Project.

That so exalted a figure in the field of architecture would devote himself to so exhaustive a treatise on shopping highlights the symbiosis between that form of art and that form of commerce, a relationship both long-standing—Sullivan, Burnham, Loos, Breuer, Mies, Pei, Philip Johnson, and Gehry all built stores or malls—and now trendy, as celebrity architects trip over themselves to build emporiums for celebrity fashion designers: Koolhaas (Prada), Gehry (Issey Miyake), and Tadao Ando (Armani). But the architect that the Harvard guide features most prominently is Victor Gruen (1903–1980), a Jewish socialist Viennese refugee from the Nazis, who is referred to with ritual frequency as the father of the shopping mall, and hence as the man who changed fundamentally the American landscape and way of life.

An astonishing number of books and articles have been written about malls (the Harvard guide alone has eight essays largely or wholly about them; at least five books of bibliographies on them have been published; and at least ten novels are set in them). As the locus of 75 percent of total U.S. retail spending in 2005, they’re obviously intrinsically important, and criticizing them (as many of the seminal books and articles on them do) is an efficient way for too many writers, especially academics, to establish their progressive/philo-“urban”/philo-“ethnic”/anti–Leave It to Beaver credentials. But they’re such an attractive subject mainly because, as “pyramids of the boom-years” (to quote a 1970s Joan Didion essay on them), they illuminate the triumph of mass-market consumerism, the burgeoning of suburbia, the decline of downtowns, and the rise of various federal programs and policies—the FHA, the Interstate Highway System, the Internal Revenue Code (historians and urban planners have spilled an obscene amount of ink debating the extent to which the 1954 tax legislation allowing for accelerated depreciation on real-estate investments was responsible for the mushrooming of malls in the 1950s and ’60s)—that nurtured and hastened those developments.

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Benjamin Schwarz is the literary and the national editor of The Atlantic. More

His first piece for the magazine, "The Diversity Myth," was a cover story in 1995. Since then he's written articles and reviews on a startling array of subjects from fashion to the American South, from current fiction to the Victorian family, and from international economics to Chinese restaurants. Schwarz oversees and writes a monthly column for "Books and Critics," the magazine's cultural department, which under his editorship has expanded its coverage to include popular culture and manners and mores, as well as books and ideas. He also regularly writes the "leader" for the magazine. Before joining the Atlantic's staff, Schwarz was the executive editor of World Policy Journal, where his chief mission was to bolster the coverage of cultural issues, international economics, and military affairs. For several years he was a foreign policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, where he researched and wrote on American global strategy, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and military doctrine. Schwarz was also staff member of the Brookings Institution. Born in 1963, he holds a B.A. and an M.A. in history from Yale, and was a Fulbright scholar at Oxford. He has written for a variety of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, The National Interest, and The Nation. He has lectured at a range of institutions, from the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School to the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History. He won the 1999 National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in book criticism.

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