Talking Death, Magic, and Hoboes with Lapham’s Quarterly
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.” On newsstands now is “Magic Shows” where they explore everything from mysticism to sword and sorcery.
This month for Picador’s conversation with bloggers (and blogger-types), I spoke with Aidan Flax-Clark, the magazine’s Associate Editor. He also hosts the magazine’s podcast, which is excellent. You can listen to it here. Lapham’s Quarterly is also on Tumblr and Aidan posts his electronic music here.
Here Aidan shares how Lapham’s Quarterly finds all its excellent material, the challenges they face creating an issue, and how to make small talk at dinner parties—or not.
Each issue of Lapham’s Quarterly unearths a ton of archived material. How do you and the people you work with go about finding essays and artwork?
It’s pretty much like the matrix in cinema’s The Matrix, except that we have a special history version that’s way nerdier. It looks the same, but it tells us where to read about Constantine’s conversion to Christianity instead of teaching us how to fight Agent Smith with crazy kung fu. And instead of Morpheus, I guess we’ve got Edward Gibbon. But we make sure to look the part: we put on black-vinyl trench coats and bodysuits, slide some tough mirrored shades onto our faces, and we plug in. Somewhere in all those monochrome letters and numbers, we find our material. It’s all very high-tech—and there is a lot of CG involved.
In all reality, just as the magazine draws on a wide variety of sources to fill its pages, we reach out to a pretty broad network for help. At the core of it is our small editorial staff; each of us has an area of certain specialty, and fortunately for us, none of them overlap too much. I studied Russian and classical languages, so I might be more inclined to suggest a passage from A Hero of Our Time than from An American Tragedy, but someone else will know the latter, and so on. One person loves The 1,001 Nights, another the poetry of W. H. Auden, a third the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci. We begin there, mixing in along the way a lot of research in fields we don’t have mastery over—medieval Islamic theology or ancient Chinese poetry, for instance. Then we turn to Lewis (Lapham, our founder), who has an unbelievable breadth of knowledge and depth of reading, and he’ll always come up with lots great ideas, and usually at least five or ten things none of us has ever even heard of. Beyond that, we rely on the expertise of the writers, historians, and academics who comprise our editorial board and always have some helpful suggestions. And all the strengths of these people combine like Voltron, hopefully yielding an issue every few months that both offers some historical insight into a topic as well as pleasure in the reading of what we’ve assembled.
Wow. That’s more fascinating than I imagined—and I imagined it to be pretty fascinating. What are some of the challenges you face?
Probably the biggest challenge is reminding ourselves that, while we do have a real responsibility to be respectful and faithful to the history of each issue-topic, we are not teaching a course in it. We’re making something that’s supposed to be fun to read, not present the burden of a textbook, and thus it’s not our job to make some kind of comprehensive, definitive survey of anything. One issue of LQ is never going to entirely cover War, or Money, or even some of the smaller topics we’ve done like “The Future” or “Celebrity.” And that’s okay. If we offer some small portrait on the history of ideas behind any given subject, and if you enjoy reading around in that portrait and feel like you’ve learned a little something in the process, then I think we’ve done our job. But when you set out to take on a big issue—for instance, we’re working on an issue about Politics right now—it can get hard to shake off the sense that we’re burdened with doing something bigger than that.
What is one topic you would love to explore that hasn’t been covered in a Lapham’s Quarterly issue?
I’ve always been eager for LQ to cover death. Not the sexiest topic, I know, and probably kind of a downer on the newsstand, but what could be more fundamental? Our anxieties, fears, and explanations about death are largely what distinguish us as humans, not to mention the significant roles they play in our religions, our technology, and our art. So I think we have to do it. But stay tuned; maybe you’ll see it next year.
I would buy that in a second. What is the best part about your job working for a literary journal?
That I spend significant chunks of my working day reading. Also, not being in a service industry is pretty awesome, because, as you might imagine, the kind of misanthrope who wants to spend a big chunk of their day reading is probably not the kind of person who should be in the business of helping customers.
*Nods head in agreement* What was the biggest takeaway from working on the current issue of Lapham’s Quarterly: Summer 2012 “Magic Shows”?
That no matter what advances we have in our understanding of how the world works, there is always some kind of world beyond that understanding, and that is where magic lives. Whether it was 2,000 years ago and someone was trying to understand where thunder came from, 400 years ago when someone was burning a suspected witch, or 20 minutes ago when someone sent a text message on their magic iPhone without any understanding of how it actually got sent, the realm of magic, though its form may be ever-changing, is nevertheless ever-present. I also (shameless plug to follow) learned that writing on magic is some of the most entertaining we’ve ever had in the Quarterly.
Is there a fact, essay, or illustration that didn’t make it into an issue that you wish had?
Probably, but I love cutting things! I like losing something I thought was essential and then realizing I was just being kind of precious and unreasonable about it. It’s easy to lose perspective, economy, and measure when working on anything, but especially on the kind of sprawling compendium we’re putting together each issue, so I appreciate any opportunity to be forced into better retaining those qualities.
You must be a wealth of knowledge at dinner parties. Any advice on how to make small talk?
I’m terrible at small talk. That’s why I work somewhere that mostly requires silent work in front of a book or a computer! But I believe I’ve been told that the best entry into small talk is the weather, so I’d start there. If that doesn’t work, since most conversation is just a minor skirmish to determine who’s the more interesting person, I say open with some erudite-sounding quotation with a vague, general meaning that you’ve made up, attribute it to some fancy personage from history, say a Cicero or a Goethe, stare your interlocutor down in a way that lets them know your obscure reference from history has bested them in one move, and then laugh triumphantly as they walk away, head hung low in shame. Also, if you enjoy invention, lies are always great. You could tell people about the years you spent in Bosnia learning how to memorize epic poetry from local goat herders, or the months you spent train-hopping around the U.S. and cataloguing hobo songs like some modern-day Alan Lomax. We still have hoboes, right?
You host the Lapham’s Quarterly podcast. How did you decide the journal needed an audio component?
Having a different medium in which to continue the Quarterly’s explorations made perfect sense to me, so it wasn’t a tough decision. It sounded like a lot of fun—and it is—and I also have a background in audio engineering, so all the skills and tools necessary to make it happen were ready at hand. The podcast is a real labor of love, and the only thing I wish is that I had more time to dedicate to it, because there are tons of episodes I’d love to do. If we had more time, there’d be a series of historical audio documentaries, taking smaller episodes and topics that came up during the course of an issue and diving deeper into them. I did one like that on invented languages recently, and it was a lot of fun, but it just takes so much time. But hopefully I’ll find a way to make more of those in the future.
Who would you love to interview if they were alive today and what is one question you would ask?
The people I dream of interviewing are all record producers, because I run a sideline obsession in music production, but I’ll have to find a different podcast for that. In the meantime, I’ve had the opportunity to speak with some pretty amazing people on the LQ podcast. John Crowley is one of my favorite authors of all time, and I’ve both worked with him a number of times on essays for the magazine and interviewed him twice for the podcast. That was a real treat, as was speaking to the husband/wife translating team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. But all the people who have come on the show are people whose work I respect and admire—that’s why I asked them on!—so I’ve immensely enjoyed getting to meet and speak with every single one of them.
What are some of your favorite overlooked websites?
I have too many friends who are better at finding all the cool Internet stuff than I am, so it appeases my instinct for laziness to just crowdsource from them. But once you’re crowdsourcing like that, whatever they’re telling you about is probably not overlooked anymore. So I can’t really make any good recommendations there. Maybe Bing? How’s Bing doing? I’ll give that a plug.
What are you reading now and how did you find out about it?
Right now I’m reading All the King’s Men for the first time. We’re working on this issue about Politics for the fall, so it seemed like the appropriate time. And thus far it’s as excellent as anyone ever told me it would be. I’m also reading H. W. Brands’ American Colossus, which is a fascinating account of how capitalism transformed the character, operation, and direction of the U.S. during the second half of the nineteenth century. Brands is an unbelievably prolific historian and an excellent writer. I would highly recommend both of these books.