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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

Language as power. What a concept. “Language that induces a change of heart.”

And that, I think, is the sharp point of the Quarterly. Its very presence wounds us with our ignorance. Leaves us no excuse for not having read—or at least glimpsed—the possibilities that the history of thought offers.

But I think there’s one sentence he spoke in the beginning of his description of the Quarterly that’s important: “Also it was fun.”

***

Some are more fun than others. I must admit my favorite so far is the one on eros from Winter 2009. What a pleasure it was in the weeks after I’d left his office to read the “Eros” issue, not 224 pages straight through, but opening it at random. One found an utterly non-solemn whirligig of memorable excerpts and quotes that touched on every aspect of eros in a delightful way that left you feeling the spirit of love, longing and loss, love, physical and metaphysical, in all its manifestations, seductive and disgusted. Not a manifesto or a consideration of issues, but cumulatively an unforgettable wild ride—an idiosyncratically cohesive work of art itself, a trip! It somehow created its own genre so skillfully that one never had the sense of the dutifulness of anthology but something closer to the exhilaration of a love affair. One which was capped off by the final one-sentence quote on the final page, from Michel Foucault, of all people: “The best moment of love is when the lover leaves in the taxi.” Sigh!

***

Lapham has no love for what web culture is doing. He laments Google for inadvertent censorship in the way search engine optimization indiscrim­inately buries what is of value beneath millions of search results of crap. Even if that was not the purpose, it’s been the result, he avers.

“And that aspect of the Internet I think is going to get worse.”

He can sound a bit extreme when he says Facebook embodies “many of the properties of the Holy Inquisition. I mean its data-mining capacities. Or what Torquemada had in mind. I mean, the NKVD and the Gestapo were content aggregators.”

He’s nothing if not fiery. Did I hear someone say Savonarola? (Although the Florentine, who presided over “the bonfire of the vanities,” was a book-burner; Lapham is a book illuminator.)

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