Sunday, December 18, 2005

Holiday Gift Books from 2005: Social Studies

Brother, Can You Spare Me
Some Time

by William S. Kowinski

THE MARCH OF SPARE TIME: The Problem and Promise of Leisure
in the Great Depression
by Susan Currell
University of Pennsylvania Press

I highly recommend this absorbing and revelatory book. Though her subject seems narrow, Currell traces the relationships of prevailing thought that shaped a wide range of policies affecting all of us to this day.

It also seems an odd if not frivolous subject—leisure in the Great Depression? We are used to a different emphasis in books on the 1930s, as in Malcolm Cowley’s sharp and steady memoir, The Dream of the Golden Mountains, which I’ve recently read. The spectre of vast unemployment, drought, malnutrition, incipient revolution and half a million men a year riding boxcars, would seem to make the issue of leisure irrelevant, or even perverse.

But beginning in the late 1920s it was a concern, and not applied to the rich or leisure classes, but to the working class. The industrial revolution was transforming the country, and even with the Depression between the 20s and 40s, it continued (many innovations and inventions were actually created in the 30s but would not make their impact until later.) Greater mechanization would inevitably lead to shorter work days and weeks, and what were workers going to do in the slack time?

And if you were unemployed, you had lots of time on your hands. Still, many families made it through the Depression with difficulty but basically intact. The powers that be worried about their idle hands as well.

There was a lot of class and other bias involved in how the question was approached, going back to late 19th century immigration. As Currell tells the story, much of the concern had to do with the science and pseudo-science of the day, including eugenics.

(One reason I prefer the old designation “social studies” to “social science” is that these young disciplines don’t seem like science to me, and too often engaged in presumptuous social engineering. What Currell writes about in this book only further convinces me.)

The social engineers wanted to divert the non-leisure classes to good and healthful use of their downtime, rather than bad. What was bad? It was Trouble, right here in River City, with a capital T, that rhymes with P, that stands for Pool. And worse.

The results were not always nefarious: public parks beginning in the 1890s, then amusement parks, family sports, board games, and the sand box. (Not much about marching bands, though, despite the title.) Still, the theories of eugenics, sex differences (movies were good for men but “morally corrupting” for women), race and class are chilling, even when they fostered reforms, like the expanded role of public libraries for "self-improvement."

This is a very different take on a fascinating period of history just outside the memory of most of us today, but one which has many lessons for our time, and quite probably our future.

WEIGHING THE WORLD: The Quest to Measure the Earth
by Edwin Danson
Oxford University Press

This sort of book, combining science and history, has become quite popular, with a version often turning up on PBS at some point. Danson has previously written about how Mason and Dixon surveyed their famous line. This time he takes on a bigger subject---the entire world. As more of it was being explored and more money dependent on trade in the 18th century, accurate maps became essential. For real accuracy, larger questions had to be answered, including the shape and size of the planet itself.

There is plenty of history and some science and adventure in this chronicle for the general reader. The prose is sometimes a bit fevered and strained, but also has its shining moments. Danson presents context, description and background, though not much personality. Fans of popular history should find it congenial.


by Gerard J. DeGroot
Harvard University Press

This biography of the atomic bomb has to be ranked as one of the best and most important books published this year. Making deft use of accumulated history and new information from Soviet archives, DeGroot, Professor of Modern History at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, writes with grace and economy of a 60-year history still unfolding. More HERE.

BORN LOSERS: A History of Failure in America
by Scott A. Sandage
Harvard University Press

From the 19th century of Emerson and Thoreau (the first and most paradigmatic "born loser" in the book) to the formulation of the American Dream in 1931 and presumably through the Dale Carnegie-redux 1980s of "market yourself" which is still with us, America has defined losers in economic terms, yet attributed that losing to personal character failure. We continue to do this today, '>Scott Sandage writes, "because a century and a half ago we embraced business as the dominant model for our outer and inner lives." MORE HERE

by Jeffrey D. Sachs

Penguin Press

Concerning the world's future, Jeffrey Sachs in his new book offers convincing proof and a practical plan for addressing and essentially ending poverty in our time. We've known since President Kennedy said so in his Inaugural Address in 1961 that eradicating poverty is within our power. This book, which is both based on information gathered for the UN Millennium Project and is the basis for the 20 year effort inaugurated by that project this year to eliminate poverty, offers the blueprint for actually doing it. At very little cost to the wealthy nations and their citizens.

By Russell Muirhead

Harvard University Press

An Associate Professor of Government at Harvard, Muirhead examines some of these knotty common issues ("Can we each get our due while at the same time contributing to the common good?" ) as problems in political theory. This book examines philosophical approaches to the issues of work, the individual and society, from Plato and Aristotle, through John Stuart Mill and Betty Friedan. This is basically a scholarly work, well-organized and quite readable in style. It is a solid contribution, a thorough background that raises the pertinent issues, though few readers are likely to find it the last word on their own concerns. MORE HERE.

How American Hospitals Shape the End of Life
By Sharon R. Kaufman

The spectacle of demonstrations and the political as well as judicial intervention in the decision to withdraw life support from Terri Schiavo, the Florida woman who was kept alive in a persistent vegetative state for more than a decade, is a dramatic illustration of many issues and emotions that Sharon R. Kaufman addresses in "And a Time to Die." For when hospitals can prolong most organ functions indefinitely, decisions can hinge on such apparently straightforward yet suddenly uncertain concepts as recovery, responsiveness, personhood and life itself. MORE HERE.

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