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.