the contextual life

thoughts without borders

What to Read: Lapham’s Quarterly

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Lapham’s Quarterly is a journal of big ideas. It takes its lead from Cicero’s observation that “to know our history is to know ourselves” and, with writings from the past, proves “that valuable observations of the human character and predicament don’t become obsolete”.

Each issue explores a single theme using archival material, newly commissioned essays, and “history’s underutilized scrapbooks: letters, diaries, speeches, navigational charts, menus, photographs, bills of lading, writs of execution.” When put together, Lapham’s is as elegant as it is meaty.

Lewis Lapham, former Editor of Harper’s Magazine and author of numerous left-leaning political books, launched the journal in 2008, bringing his political sensibilities with him. Although political criticism is included in each issue, one of the quarterly’s greatest strengths is its ability to explore society without becoming dogmatic.

The most recent issue, Spring 2012’s “Means of Communication,” while it features pieces dating back to nearly 3000 B.C. up until the modern day, there is a striking overlapping of preoccupations in many of the poems and essays.

Looking at historical correspondence we see that the 21st century doesn’t have a monopoly on hand-wringing over the disintegration of language. In a letter from Benjamin Franklin to Noah Webster the former praises the latter’s 1789 Dissertations on the English Language: “It is an excellent work and will be greatly useful in turning the thoughts of our countrymen to correct writing … I cannot but applaud your zeal for preserving the purity of our language, both in its expressions and pronunciation, and in correcting the popular errors several of our states are continually falling into with respect to both.”

A poem composed in 2800 BC predicts a singular language, an idea that feels echoed in H.G. Wells’s premonition of a singular encyclopedia. In his 1936 essay about a “Permanent World Encyclopedia,” a phrase that calls Wikipedia to mind, Wells says,“the idea of an encyclopedia may undergo very considerable extension and elaboration in the near future. … our contemporary encyclopedias are still in the coach-and-horse phase of development”.

One can then find the thread to language columnist, linguist, and lexicographer Ben Zimmer’s essay ‘Word for Word,’ where he explains Roget’s intentions when first creating the thesaurus: to “create order out of linguistic chaos”. After naming a few thesaurus naysayers, he continues, “Roget intended for his readers to immerse themselves in the orderly classification system of the thesaurus so that they might better understand the full possibilities for human expression. As Roget first conceived it, the book did not even have an alphabetical index—he included it later as an afterthought. His goal, then, was not to provide a simple method of replacing synonym A with synonym B but instead to encourage a fuller understanding of the world of ideas and the language representing it.” If you continue on, Zimmer ultimately asks the question, “what does it [Roget’s Thesaurus] have to offer the modern reader?”

The pieces range in length anywhere from a quote …

“The only authors whom I acknowledge as American are the journalists. They indeed are not great writers, but they speak the language of their countrymen, and make themselves heard by them.” — Alexis de Tocqueville

“When action grows unprofitable, gather information; when information grows unprofitable, sleep.” –Ursula K. LeGuin

… to a sidebar-sized excerpt; to a three page essay, perfect for weekend mornings in the coffee shop.

If you only thumb through Lapham’s Quarterly you get the sense that everyone working there sifts through an incredible amount of information each day. Even the short contributor bios contain obscure facts; before reading Plutarch’s “Tone of Voice,” I never knew his “paired biographies of eminent Greeks and Romans . . . [became] a source for several of William Shakespeare’s plays.”

Near the back of the book there’s a section called “Miscellany”. It has the feel of an outtake reel, a place born out of finding a mind-blowing fact and not having a place to put it. I know my life is better knowing this: “Before the entire palette of modern mathematical notation existed, Johannes Kepler relied on musical notation to describe the planets’ rotation around the sun in his Harmonies of the World, published in 1619.” To leave it out would have been criminal.

With contributions from Jorge Luis Borges, Toni Morrison, Oliver Sacks, John Cheever, and computer scientist Jaron Lanier, I’m afraid that if I gush as much as I’d like this post will be longer than the issue itself. Lapham’s Quarterly, whether tackling celebrity, food, or fantasy, delivers a quality experience every time.

::[Links]::
Listen to this issue’s podcast, an interview with Simon Winchester, whose essay “Native Tongues” was in “Means of Communication,” and Dictionary of American Regional English chief editor Joan Hall. Then, I highly suggest you subscribe to Lapham’s Quarterly.

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2 Responses

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  1. A great point about Shakespeare and Plutarch. I know that in many of the classes I took while obtaining my English degree there were more than a few mentions that “Wild Bill” ,as I like to call him, had a bit of a penchant for “borrowing.” George Bernard Shaw loved to point that out. Shaw, Player Hater?, or Purist?

    jescherr

    May 8, 2012 at 11:33 am


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