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Lewis Lapham, the legendary former editor of Harper's, who, beginning in the 1970s, helped change the face of American nonfiction, has a new mission: taking on the Great Paradox of the digital age. (Neville Elder / Corbis)

Lewis Lapham’s Antidote to the Age of BuzzFeed

With his erudite Quarterly, the legendary Harper’s editor aims for an antidote to digital-age ignorance

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The counter­revolution has its embattled forward outpost on a genteel New York street called Irving Place, home to Lapham’s Quarterly. The street is named after Washington Irving, the 19th-century American author best known for creating the Headless Horseman in his short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” The cavalry charge that Lewis Lapham is now leading could be said to be one against headlessness—against the historically illiterate, heedless hordesmen of the digital revolution ignorant of our intellectual heritage; against the “Internet intellectuals” and hucksters of the purportedly utopian digital future who are decapitating our culture, trading in the ideas of some 3,000 years of civilization for...BuzzFeed. 

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Lapham, the legendary former editor of Harper’s, who, beginning in the 1970s, helped change the face of American nonfiction, has a new mission: taking on the Great Paradox of the digital age. Suddenly thanks to Google Books, JSTOR and the like, all the great thinkers of all the civilizations past and present are one or two clicks away. The great library of Alexandria, nexus of all the learning of the ancient world that burned to the ground, has risen from the ashes online. And yet—here is the paradox—the wisdom of the ages is in some ways more distant and difficult to find than ever, buried like lost treasure beneath a fathomless ocean of online ignorance and trivia that makes what is worthy and timeless more inaccessible than ever. There has been no great librarian of Alexandria, no accessible finder’s guide, until Lapham created his quarterly five years ago with the quixotic mission of serving as a highly selective search engine for the wisdom of the past.

Which is why the spartan quarters of the Quarterly remind me of the role rare and scattered monasteries of the Dark Ages played when, as the plague raged and the scarce manuscripts of classical literature were being burned, dedicated monks made it their sacred mission to preserve, copy, illuminate manuscripts that otherwise might have been lost forever.

In the back room of the Quarterly, Lapham still looks like the striking patrician beau ideal, slender and silvery at 77 in his expensive-looking suit. A sleek black silk scarf gives him the look of a still-potent mafia don (Don Quixote?) whose beautiful manners belie a stiletto-like gaze at contemporary culture. One can sense, reading Lapham’s Quarterly, that its vast array of erudition is designed to be a weapon—one would like to say a weapon of mass instruction. Though its 25,000 circulation doesn’t allow that scale of metaphor yet, it still has a vibrant web presence and it has the backing of a wide range of erudite eminences.

When I asked Lapham about the intent of his project, he replied with a line from Goethe, one of the great little-read writers he seeks to reintroduce to the conversation: “Goethe said that he who cannot draw on 3,000 years [of learning] is living hand to mouth.” Lapham’s solution to this under-nourishment: Give ’em a feast.

Each issue is a feast, so well curated—around 100 excerpts and many small squibs in issues devoted to such relevant subjects as money, war, the family and the future—that reading it is like choosing among bonbons for the brain. It’s a kind of hip-hop mash-up of human wisdom. Half the fun is figuring out the rationale of the order the Laphamites have given to the excerpts, which jump back and forth between millennia and genres: From Euripides, there’s Medea’s climactic heart-rending lament for her children in the “Family” issue. Isaac Bashevis Singer on magic in ’70s New York City. Juvenal’s filthy satire on adulterers in the “Eros” issue. In the new “Politics” issue we go from Solon in ancient Athens to the heroic murdered dissident journalist Anna Politkovskaya in 21st-century Moscow. The issue on money ranges from Karl Marx back to Aristophanes, forward to Lord Byron and Vladimir Nabokov, back to Hammurabi in 1780 B.C.

Lapham’s deeper agenda is to inject the wisdom of the ages into the roiling controversies of the day through small doses that are irresistible reading. In “Politics,” for example, I found a sound bite from Persia in 522 B.C., courtesy of Herodotus, which introduced me to a fellow named Otanes who made what may be the earliest and most eloquent case for democracy against oligarchy. And Ralph Ellison on the victims of racism and oligarchy in the 1930s.

That’s really the way to read the issues of the Quarterly. Not to try reading the latest one straight through, but order a few back issues from its website, Laphamsquarterly.org, and put them on your bedside table. Each page is an illumination of the consciousness, the culture that created you, and that is waiting to recreate you.

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And so how did it come to pass that Lewis Lapham, the standard-bearer for the new voices of American nonfiction in the late 20th century, has now become the champion for the Voices of the Dead, America’s last Renaissance Man? Playing the role T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and their magazine The Criterion did in the 1920s: reminding people of what was being lost and seeking some kind of restoration from the wasteland around them: “These fragments I shore against my ruin,” as Eliot wrote at the close of his most famous poem.

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