'Tis the season for print magazines to lavishly—and uncritically—spotlight fancy new consumer goods. In December, every newsstand shines with glossies promising the perfect gift guide—some skew cheap, some pricey; some promise advice for the geek, others for the glamorous. The one unifying thread seems to be the idea that this is an iPad Christmas: Nearly all offer something either for those who already have the gadget and therefore need accessories or for those who don't yet have iPads but who surely want to receive one. (And, somehow, most magazines find a way to recommend their own iPad apps.)
It's nice of the glossies to help consumers out each holiday season. But there's too much help. Before you can choose among the 338,749 perfect presents promised on each cover, you need to figure out which guide suits your needs, and who has the time for that? Slate does! We've read them all, so you don't have to. Below, a brief guide to the guides.
New York The Approach: myriad. One section organizes gifts by personal descriptors (mumblecore boyfriend, outdoorsy wife); another asks famous New Yorkers what they'd get other famous New Yorkers (André Leon Talley would send Nora Ephron a Japanese maple, for instance, the symbolism of which I've pondered unfruitfully); yet another offers picks from 50 stores that opened their doors in 2010; there are also sub-guides on scarves and charitable giving; and, finally, a guide catered specifically to foodies with gift bags from stores like Momofuku Milk Bar and Bklyn Larder.
Whom You're Shopping For: Status-obsessed New Yorkers, in spirit if not necessarily geography.
Nod to the Cheapskates: La Boîte Verte mini-garden ($30), USB laptop lamp ($12 and perfect for, oh, just off the top of my head, writers who spend too much time in charming but darkly lit coffeehouse nooks), a yoga retreat for a mere $55 per night.
Bottom Line: Enjoyable reading, well laid-out, and though it skews expensive, there are plenty of distinctly stylish options at all price points and for a variety of (urban) sensibilities. Plus, where else will you find out what Judah Friedlander thinks Ivanka Trump needs for Christmas? (Spoiler alert: A membership to an exclusive Manhattan ping-pong club.)
GQ The Approach: GQ frames its list not precisely as a gift guide but as a compendium of the "best stuff of the year"—to help the GQ man populate his own wish list.
Whom You're Shopping For: The guy who parlayed his crew team connections into a lucrative New York finance job—or maybe the guy who wants his apartment to look like the movie set of that life. Someone who picks out bath towels with the requirement that they must be big enough should "a bikinied stranger need a place to rest her feet," or who might be willing to refer to storage containers as "bro baskets." (More guides online, including one to help that bro tackle buying for his bro-ette.)
Absurdities: Channel Islands Stand-Up Caddi ($1,710), with surfer chick possibly included (GQ says of her: "you're welcome"); 46-inch Samsung LED 9000 TV ($5,000) that perhaps doubles as art: "To really let its precision-machined aesthetic shine, turn it off. No other TV is as elegantly discreet."); Steve McQueen-inspired, alien-looking Les Ateliers Ruby Belvedere motorcycle helmet ($890); the recently reissued Fiat 500 ($15,500).
Nod to the Cheapskates: A vacuum-bottled Stanley flask ($20, for those oh-so-desirable men of style who are both cheap dates and drunks); Takeya Modern Water bottle ($24.99, for the morning after the flask's use.)
Dim Ideas: Roman and Williams Towel Bar ($145): No one wants bathroom hardware for the holidays, even if it's the same equipment used in the trendy Ace Hotel. Next year—the flushers from Yankee Stadium?
Bottom Line: The unusual ideas in this one are too pricy for most to actually purchase, but if you're looking for updates of traditional gentlemanly gifts—that Dop kit, a wallet—GQ offers useful guidance.
Martha Stewart Living The Approach: Twenty years into its existence, the mag has published its first-ever gift guide. There's a section on crafting homemade gifts, which Slate barely had the energy to read (ugly scarves, ugly candles, difficult-looking Santa chocolate wrappers), plus store-bought gifts organized by category, with one kids' item and one actual "Martha's pick" in each. (It is one thing to take your gift advice from some low-level editorial staffer tasked with compiling a listicle—not to undermine my own credibility here—and quite another to hear how a genuine lifestyle guru thinks you should approach the giving season.) As befits an unabashed mogul, also plenty of items from Martha Stewart's various eponymous brands.
Whom You're Shopping For: You're asked to pigeonhole your friends into one of a number of stereotypes—craft fanatic, design savvy (apparently distinct categories), green-thumbed, food lovers, etc. But most pages will have something nice for the domestically inclined middle-aged woman in your life.
Nod to the Cheapskates: Metallic tape measures ($6), Audubon bird call ($5.50).
Bright Ideas: Affordable, smartly minimalist, personalized portraits ($45, Kikiandpolly.com), Togiharu Hammered Texture knives ($84.50 and up).
Dim Ideas: Pom-pom makers ($31 for 4—"the pom-sibilities are endless"), "quirky" Edison bulbs. ($8 each—seriously, why all the hardware-store recommendations? Next year, the florescent bulbs from Martha's assistant's cubicle.)
Bottom Line: Largely moderately priced, tasteful, and useful—smugly free of egregious slip-ups. This is why people hate Martha.
Whom You're Shopping For: "Geeks." They said it, not me. Remember that GQ flask? Wired's flask recommendation (Dalvey, $121) has a telescoping cup. Keep that distinction in mind.
Bright Ideas: ThinkGeek Molecular Gastronomy Starter Kit ($70), like Play-Doh for grown-ups with chemistry (or culinary) degrees (related—Sous Vide Supreme Water Bath, $450); Photojojo Magnetic Lenses ($40) that snap onto phone cameras; Freehands gloves ($80) that let you hold portable electronic devices without exposing your hands to the cold.
Dim Ideas: $275 puffy silver Patagonia Men's Down Sweater: a dire combination version of the killer marshmallow balloon and the Bill Murray hazmat suit from Ghostbusters.
Bottom Line: Aren't we all geeks now? Even if you're not interested in a Lego Hoth Wampa Cave and don't think bag organizers are "as accommodating as a geisha but with more pockets," Wired has the most comprehensive compilation of fun gadget-gift ideas this season.
Elle The Approach: Divided into sections for each of the things elle does: play, indulge, decorate, celebrate, and escape. Plus a bonus page of chi-chi things to keep forever. La vie est dure!
Whom You're Shopping For: Women without car payments, mortgages, or children. Or women who might want to forget they have those things.
Absurdities: Everything. But more specifically, Fendi bike with gazelle-fur detail (price upon request and only from the Las Vegas store, neither of which is a promising sign); faux crocodile rosewood veneer vanity and chair ($4,800), Lanvin gold lamé jumpsuit for those days when leggings feel too informal ($2,950), Roger Vivier woven straw pumps ($4,250).
Dim Ideas: Pastel-ish leather baseballs (an ill-conceived feint at sportiness, $25), Adam polyester track shorts (an expensively conceived feint at sportiness, $195), glittery Guess hooker heels (not an official product name, $90), Cire Trudon Napoleon-shaped candle ($105).
Bottom Line: I don't have a car, a mortgage, or children, and on some shameful, basely materialistic level I wanted even some of the things I mocked. Do with this confession what you will.
Food and Wine The Approach: Gift-guide-cum-how-to with recipes (for pear jam, vanilla extract, etc.) your giftee can pair with her loot, suggested by the proprietors of various food specialty stores across the country; ancillary sections on "vintage-inspired food gifts and experiences," "unusual" kitchen tools, and wine.
Whom You're Shopping For: People who like food and wine.
Absurdities: Restoration Hardware (again with the hardware!) cast-iron light fixture meant to replicate a barn-door trolley ($499). Relationship to food or wine unknown.
Nod to the Cheapskates: Williams Sonoma nonstick bakeware ($13), Square One brownies ($8 for two), mini kimchi tongs ($5 for two), so on and so forth … Who knew Food and Wine was so thrifty? Even the wine picks top out around $40.
Dim Ideas: Vibe jars from the Container Store ($3.50)—they're not hardware, at least, but these are essentially mayonnaise containers, sans mayonnaise.
Bottom Line: The how-tos offer a convenient cookie-cutter mold ($19.95) for giving elaborately themed gifts. Fairly inexpensive, too, but unless your friend is the sort of person who makes her own kimchi (maybe introduce me; I could use a friend like that), there's a risk some of this stuff will linger unused in the back of her kitchen cabinets. And if you don't go the theme route, some of the items are rather dull as freestanding gifts. But the wine and kitchen goods guides might be some of the more helpful resources for hostess gifts you'll find.
So, armed with that knowledge, happy reading, happy shopping, and happy holidays. If none of these suggestions seems right for you, might I recommend Slate's iPad app? It's free!
Correction, Dec. 7: Rem D. Koolhaas' name was originally misspelled, and the middle initial, which distinguishes him from his uncle, the more famous Dutch architect, was omitted. Return to the corrected sentence.