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Test 1 / 25

The Architecture of Happiness

Four reviewers comment on philosopher Alain De Botton’s book

A
Alain de Botton is a brave and highly intelligent writer who writes about complex subjects, clarifying the arcane for the layman. Now, with typical self-assurance, he has turned to the subject of architecture. The essential theme of his book is how architecture influences mood and behaviour. It is not about the specifically architectural characteristics of space and design, but much more about the emotions that architecture inspires in the users of buildings. Yet architects do not normally talk nowadays very much about emotion and beauty. They talk about design and function. De Botton’s message, then, is fairly simple but worthwhile precisely because it is simple, readable and timely. His commendable aim is to encourage architects, and society more generally, to pay more attention to the psychological consequences of design in architecture: architecture should be treated as something that affects all our lives, our happiness and well-being.

B
Alain de Botton raises important, previously unasked, questions concerning the quest for beauty in architecture, or its rejection or denial. Yet one is left with the feeling that he needed the help and support of earlier authors on the subject to walk him across the daunting threshold of architecture itself. And he is given to making extraordinary claims: ‘Architecture is perplexing … in how inconsistent is its capacity to generate the happiness on which its claim to our attention is founded.’ If architecture’s capacity to generate happiness is inconsistent, this might be because happiness has rarely been something architects think about. De Botton never once discusses the importance of such dull, yet determining, matters as finance or planning laws, much less inventions such as the lift or reinforced concrete. He appears to believe that architects are still masters of their art, when increasingly they are cogs in a global machine for building in which beauty, and how de Botton feels about it, are increasingly beside the point.

C
In The Architecture of Happiness, Alain de Botton has a great time making bold and amusing judgements about architecture, with lavish and imaginative references, but anyone in search of privileged insights into the substance of building design should be warned that he is not looking at drain schedules or pipe runs. He worries away, as many architects do, at how inert material things can convey meaning and alter consciousness. Although he is a rigorous thinker, most of de Botton’s revelations, such as the contradictions in Le Corbusier’s theory and practice, are not particularly new. However, this is an engaging and intelligent book on architecture and something everyone, professionals within the field in particular, should read.

D
Do we want our buildings merely to shelter us, or do we also want them to speak to us? Can the right sort of architecture even improve our character? Music mirrors the dynamics of our emotional lives. Mightn’t architecture work the same way? De Botton thinks so, and in The Architecture of Happiness he makes the most of this theme on his jolly trip through the world of architecture. De Botton certainly writes with conviction and, while focusing on happiness can be a lovely way to make sense of architectural beauty, it probably won’t be of much help in resolving conflicts of taste.

Which reviewer

has a different opinion from the others on the confidence with which de Botton discusses architecture?
Text B
shares reviewer A’s opinion whether architects should take note of de Botton’s ideas?
Text C
expresses a similar view to reviewer B regarding the extent to which architects share de Botton’s concerns?
Text A
has a different view to reviewer C on the originality of some of de Botton’s ideas?
Text B
Test 2 / 25

Reviews of Pieces of Light

Four reviewers give their opinions on a book about memory by Charles Fernyhough

A
In my view, the most important message of Pieces of Light is that the ‘reconstructive nature of memory can make it unreliable’. It is wrong to see memories as fixed biochemical or electrical traces in the brain, like books in a giant library that you could access if only you knew how. People are becoming increasingly aware that memory is, in fact, unstable. The stories in Pieces of Light may persuade a few more – and anyone who reads them will enjoy Fernyhough’s effortless prose. He returns repeatedly to his central message using a sophisticated and engaging blend of findings from science, ideas from literature and examples from personal narratives. Yet in disabusing us of our misconceptions, and despite this being the stated aim of the book, Fernyhough leaves us with little sense of a scientific explanation to put in their place.

B
‘Remembering is a serious business,’ Charles Fernyhough warns. It is this respect for his subject that makes Pieces of Light such an immense pleasure, as Fernyhough sees the emerging science of memory through the lens of his own recollections. In the hands of a lesser writer, such reliance on personal experience could rapidly descend into self-indulgence and cliche, but Fernyhough – a psychologist and published novelist – remains restrained and lyrical throughout. As Fernyhough examines the way the brain continually rewrites our past, it is almost impossible not to question the accuracy of our recollections. Even the events that we recall with the most vivid sensory detail are not to be trusted, he maintains. Although I remain to be persuaded, Fernyhough does serve up the latest findings in neuroscience and quotes academic studies without ever baffling the reader along the way.

C
Fernyhough, who is a popular science writer as well as an academic psychologist, wrote this book because he is worried that too many people still think of memory in terms of a vast personal DVD library. He sets out to show the reader how he believes it to actually operate, and I for one was convinced. The author plays a key role in his own book, returning to places that were very familiar to him in childhood to see how much he can remember. However, he gets hopelessly lost. Though Fernyhough is a gifted writer who can turn any experience into lively prose, these autobiographical passages are the least successful of Pieces of Light because they are too disconnected from any scientific insights about memory. There are also frequent references to literature. Yet whereas others might find these a distraction from the main narrative, I personally found the balance between science and literature refreshing and well judged.

D
A major theme of Charles Fernyhough’s book is that remembering is less a matter of encoding, storing and retrieving an accurate record of events, and more a matter of adjusting memories to current circumstances, which may then alter them for future recollection. He mixes the latest findings in neuroscience with in-depth case histories. Nor is Fernyhough uncomfortable using personal testimony to put warm flesh on hard science: sizeable sections of the book are taken up with him exploring his own past. These do not add greatly to the book, and it is hard for the reader not to wonder whether it is really worth the effort of ploughing on with him. This weariness is reflected in his writing style. Surprisingly, however, Fernyhough is a lucid, concise and knowledgeable guide to all the data that generally stay buried deep in specialist journals, and that is where the book really springs to life.

Which reviewer

expresses a similar opinion to B on how clearly the science is presented?
Text D
has a different opinion to all the others on the quality of the writing?
Text D
shares C’s view of how well the writer brings together diverse academic disciplines?
Text A
has a similar view to D on the effectiveness of the writer’s emphasis on his personal memories?
Text C
Test 3 / 25

Kith: the riddle of the childscape by Jay Griffiths

Four reviewers comment on Jay Griffiths’ new book.

A
In this new book, Jay Griffiths draws the familiar but erroneous conclusion that traditional societies and tribes treat nature and children better than modern ones. She is no anthropologist, writing more like a romantic poet about nature and people’s identification with the place they grow up in. To justify her admiration for tribal practice, she cites a 2007 UNICEF report that ranked the UK lowest among 21 industrialised countries for the well-being of its children. No analysis of this finding is provided, however. Instead, a single idea of lost childhood freedom is dressed up in excessively poetic, at times, absurd language, and applied to various cultures. According to Griffiths, what children in Britain and similar countries lack is access to nature and the freedom to express their true selves in it. The idea of ‘kith’, an attachment to your ‘home territory’ is an interesting one, but the claims she makes about children’s development are too often illogical and unsupportable.

B
In a 2007 UNICEF report, the UK came last among 21 industrialised countries for the well-being of its children. Jay Griffiths’ question is: why do they feel so unhappy? Her main answer, passionately and eloquently expressed, is that they are ‘imprisoned’ indoors in front of their TV or computer screens and have lost contact with their kith – the woods, mountains, rivers, streams and wilds of their home territory. There’s definitely something in this idea, but the trouble is that Griffiths pursues it in ways that simply don’t hold up. Part of the problem is that she regards children as originally innocent and good, and that these characteristics are suppressed by the restrictions imposed on them. As parents have known for millennia, however, children are far more complex than that. She is also guilty of selective deployment of evidence. That same UNICEF report found that children in the UK are healthier and safer than ever before, for example.

C
Jay Griffiths is a self-confessed romantic, believing in the innate purity of children and a need for them to be close to nature, mystery and risk and be gloriously free. She warns us, however, that children in the West today are caged indoors and deprived of their ‘kith’, a natural domain of woodland, play, solitude, animals, adventure and time to daydream, it’s a fascinating proposition, fluently and vividly delivered. But this book is also deeply frustrating. Griffiths ignores all the science that shows that children are, in fact, far from being the simple innocents of romantic tradition. She also fails to provide convincing evidence for her assertion that children in Euro-American cultures are less happy than other children. She refers to a UNESCO report on children’s well-being in the UK, Spain and Sweden to support her argument about the importance of the outdoors. That report, however, finds that well-being depends on many factors like time with family, good relationships with friends, involvement in creative and sporting activities, as well as being outdoors.

D
In Euro-American culture, argues Griffiths, infants often lack closeness with their parents and wider families, which leaves psychological scars. Simultaneously, older children are controlled, denied access to natural spaces and pushed through a school system designed to produce employees but not psychologically rounded citizens. Parents refuse to let children play outdoors for fear of over-hyped risks, and in so doing, deny children access to the outer worlds of private, unwatched play so vital to their psychological development. The natural playgrounds of childhood, the fields and woods, have been lost to most children. The result, as the UNICEF surveys of well-being that Griffiths’ quotes reveal, is a generation of children who are unhappy and unfulfilled. Her warning message is made particularly compelling by the rare vitality and admirable energy in Griffiths’ writing.

Which scientist…

has a different opinion from the others about Griffiths’ style of writing?
Text A
shares reviewer A’s view of the way Griffiths develops her ideas about the treatment of children?
Text B
expresses a different view from the others about the use Griffiths makes of data gathered internationally about children?
Text D
has a similar opinion to reviewer В about Griffiths’ depiction of children’s basic nature?
Text C
Test 4 / 25

Hosting the Olympics

Four writers give their views about what an Olympic Games can do for the host country.

A
The Olympics are undoubtedly expensive to stage and none of the Games in recent times have made an immediate profit, but they should be considered a long-term investment. The large infrastructure projects like new roads and transport systems, the new sports venues and cultural facilities, the regeneration of rundown urban areas and the increase in tourism all end up stimulating the economy eventually. The international media focus on the Games can also lift the host country’s profile to another level. This has a knock-on effect on attitudes within the host country. International attention and proof of a capacity to rise to the challenge can pull the country together, make it feel good about itself and put it in a position to compete in the modern world.

B
Weighing up the pros and cons of hosting an Olympics is a complex business. Research suggests that few former hosts have experienced long-term economic gains, indeed, certain cities like Montreal and Los Angeles have taken decades to pay off the debts incurred in preparing for and running the two-week-long event, and in cases like these, an unwelcome PR effect of international dimensions seems to come attached. The real benefits are less tangible in that they inspire a local feel-good factor, enhancing a sense of pride in belonging to a city and country that can pull off such a massive and awkward enterprise. There is also the chance for everyone, the younger generations in particular, to observe elite athletes, and therefore sporting excellence, exercise and fitness become cool things to aspire to.

C
For a host city, the Olympic Games are all about legacy. They present an opportunity to showcase, domestically and to the world at large, the notion that the city possesses the know-how and manpower to manage a hugely complex international event, plus an impressive new infrastructure of sports facilities, accommodation and public transport, a vibrant, competent, friendly local population, and historic sites and places of natural beauty for tourists to visit. There is the sporting legacy too, with the greatest athletes from around the world inspiring mass participation, a crucial development when modern lifestyles tend to have a significantly detrimental effect on fitness and health. Critics of the notion of hosting the Olympics often focus on the more easily measurable economic implications which suggest that the Games are not a viable proposition, but the Olympics are not just about money; they are about other aspects of legacy which are at least as significant.

D
Most positive developments that might be associated with hosting the Olympics would happen anyway. The infrastructural investments could be made, incentives for tourists to visit could be offered and trade delegations could be energised. Past experience suggests the financial costs tend to outweigh the benefits anyway, when variables like the absurd bidding process, security and mismanagement are factored in. What of the more intangible spin-offs? First, there is no hard evidence that hosting the Olympics leads to greater public involvement in sports. In fact, studies show sporting activity actually fell in certain Olympic cities once the ‘after-party enthusiasm’ had worn off. Genuine long-term participation in sports comes from grassroots investment in schools and community facilities rather than glitzy shows. Most Olympic Games are concentrated in one city, usually the capital, and have little impact, economic or otherwise, on other parts of the country. In fact, in some cases, research reveals significant regional resentment about all the attention from government, the media and other organisations being directed at one city. So much for pride in one’s country.

Which writer …

has a different opinion to the others regarding the economic impact of hosting the Olympics?
Text A
shares writer B’s opinion about the implications for sport in the host country?
Text C
expresses a different view to the others about the effect that hosting the Olympics can have on a national sense of identity?
Text D
takes a similar view to writer A about the likely consequence for the host country’s international reputation?
Text C