ORANGE ROOFS, GOLDEN ARCHES: The Architecture of American Chain Restaurants. By Philip Langdon. Knopf. 223 pp. $27.50, paperback $19.95.

PHILIP Langdon's prose is cool, spare, and efficient -- much like the early prototypes of the chain restaurants whose history he traces in this slender, thoughtful commentary on the evolution of America's fast-food chains. Fortunately, his conclusions are neither so flimsy nor disposable as the cheap facades, silly roofs, and tacky interiors he has analyzed.

Langdon, an architecture critic who has written for the Atlantic and other publications, argues that the basic design of such chains has advanced through three tenets of American capitalism -- maximum efficiency, high visibility, and high turnover. He finds much to admire in many of these designs -- the streamlined White Towers of the 1930s, the early Georgian-style Howard Johnsons. Of the "classic" Horn & Hardart Automat on Broadway, he enthuses, "There was efficiency enshrined, daily necessity given an atmosphere of glory." And there is an elegiac tone to a chapter called "The Rise and Demise of the Drive-In," beginning with the first Pig Stand erected in Dallas, Texas.

Yet Langdon emphasizes the problems resulting from the great fast-food paradox. The ideal establishment must simultaneously lure and repel -- drawing customers inside in droves, then sending them back out onto the street as quickly as possible, with little regard for environmental or social impact. And considering that some six percent of the nation's population dines at McDonald's on any given day, the impact of all those golden arches, orange gables, and chicken buckets on America's urban and suburban landscape has been considerable indeed.

THE HORSE TRADERS. By Steven Crist. Norton. 281 pp. $16.95.

IS HORSE racing a sport, a business, or an adjunct to the gaming tables? Of course, like most professional athletic endeavors these days, racing belongs to all three categories. But as Steven Crist demonstrates in his excellent new behind-the-scenes look at the racing game, the bottom line counts considerably more than the morning line for a number of those involved with Thoroughbreds, and many of the traditions in the "sport" are being challenged.

Crist, who is the racing columnist for The New York Times, traces the careers of the more familiar stars in recent racing history -- Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, and Alydar -- and entertwines these stories with that of last year's Derby winner, Spend a Buck, to demonstrate the growing commercialism of the sport and to show how the breeding industry has come to dominate racing.

The syndication of Secretariat at the age of 2 precipitated a trend toward the early retirement of valuable stallions, and the exorbitant prices his first offspring brought at auction prefigured the bloodline-buying frenzy that has led to record prices at auction for the offspring of certain sires. Perhaps the most informative chapter in The Horse Traders, titled "Sangster and the Sheiks," chronicles an auction at the annual Keeneland summer yearling sale, during which one slender young colt brought a record bid of $13,100,000.

If one once sought a race horse with the "look of eagles," today one seeks a horse with the "look of greenbacks."

REDEMPTION SONG: The Story of Operation Moses. By Louis Rappoport. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 234 pp. $18.95.

LATE IN 1984, some 9,000 "Falashas," or Ethiopian Jews, were airlifted from Sudan to Israel, and although newspaper headlines at the time lauded the effort, this account of the event by Louis Rapoport, an editor of The Jerusalem Post, demonstrates that the rescue was a long time coming.

Tracing the history of these black Jews, who were only recently recognized as such by rabbinical authorities in Israel, Rapoport finds the story of the long-persecuted Falashas to be "another chapter of the Jewish historical experience -- an apocalyptic vision of darkness, sorrow, and ruin that accompanied their salvation." And Rapoport finds a certain biblical justice in the emigration of this long-isolated but devout group to Israel.

Human justice, however, is often lacking, and Rapoport finds as much to lament as to laud in the events that preceded the airlift. Says Rapoport, "The cause of the Ethiopian Jews attracted a wide variety of personalities, some with perhaps questionable motives, others unquestionably altruistic." And no doubt his account of the events will stir up some controversy, since he blames the office of the United Nations high commissioner for refugees directly for "negligence" in the distribution of food to the starving Ethiopian refugees and for "ignoring the reports of large-scale deaths in the camps." He blames, too, certain members of the American Jewish press for endangering the rescue by publishing accounts of the event prematurely. Only the Mossad, the Israeli secret service, emerges cleanly from the cloud of blame. And even now, asserts Rapoport, as the Falashas struggle to find a place in their new homeland, the happy-ever-after is never as simple as it seems.

IN PRAISE OF WOLVES. By R.D. Lawrence. Hott. 245 pp. $16.95.

PERHAPS someday a naturalist will return from a field trip and declare, echoing Conrad's deranged Kurtz, "Exterminate the brutes." But for most humans, studying animals in the wild, as opposed to dissecting them or testing them in the lab, leads to a profound respect for their complexity and for their right to exist. Primates, cetaceans, and wolves in particular seem to challenge the observer's objectivity, almost inevitably turning the student into the advocate.

R.D. Lawrence is no exception, and his new tribute to wolves is merely a coda to a series of books he has written over the years about his favorite animal. In Praise of Wolves, in fact, begins with Lawrence looking deeply into the eyes of a wolf named Shawano, and somehow we know that Shawano will not surprise us with unexpected savagery. The scene is similar to one in Dian Fossey's Gorillas in the Mist, when Fossey suddenly finds herself face to face with a female gorilla, whose tranquil gaze leads Fossey into a kind of mystical communication.

Unfortunately, In Praise of Wolves is the sort of book that merely preaches to the converted, and its tenuously connected anecdotes do not lead us anywhere of interest beyond that first moment of mystical promise. What Lawrence and other animal advocates have yet to answer is the simple question posed in a recent documentary about Africa. Why would anyone want to kill an elephant? Or a wolf, for that matter. But perhaps the answer would lead us back to the heart of darkness.

TREASURE WRECK: The Fortunes and Fate of the Pirate Ship 'Whydah'. By Arthur Vanderbilt II. Houghton Mifflin. 164 pp. $16.95.

LIKE A number of part-time beachcombers who grew up near the shore, Arthur Vanderbilt, attorney and "buccaneer-at-heart," became fascinated early on by the notions of pirates and buried treasure, particularly by the legendary Whydah, a private vessel said to have been wrecked off the shore of Cape Cod in 1717. In Treasure Wreck, he has consulted documents, letters, and early accounts of brigand Samuel Bellamy and his commandeered galley in order to unravel the legend, and the final chapter includes the final unraveling -- the discovery of the wreck and the recovery of its treasures by diver Barry Clifford.

Vanderbilt's account of Bellamy and his henchmen maintains a certain sympathy and awe, given the harsh treatment of ordinary sailors by their commanders and employers. Bellamy, according to Daniel Defoe, was something of a Robin Hood who scorned those who obeyed the rules, calling them "hen-hearted numbskulls" and "chuckle-headed Fools" who obeyed the "pack of crafty Rascals" busy taking advantage of the poor "under cover of the Law." The democratic anarchy of the pirate code, by contrast, seemed rather appealing: "Every man shall have an equal vote in affairs of moment. He shall have an equal title to the fresh provisions or strong liquors at any time seized . . . " On the other hand, as Vanderbilt notes, if he were caught, he would be subject not only to hanging, but to the grim sermons of Cotton Mather, the Boston divine who made of piracy a spiritual specialty.

Unfortunately, the exploits of the modern (and legal) plunderer Barry Clifford come as a kind of anticlimax, and Vanderbilt expends considerably less empathy and effort on this section of the book. We end up preferring Captain Bellamy's form of exploitation. Carol Flake's new book, "The Hopeful: A Saga of Horses, Blood and Money," will be published early next year.