I am interviewing Lewis Lapham about the newest issue of Lapham's Quarterly -- "The City" -- and we've just arrived at the heart of the matter. He's listing historical eras and the cities that have defined them. "The tone of Reaganism was suburban. Washington is a suburban town. But the future is urban. Is there one city that speaks for our contemporary moment? Or is it many?"
Born and raised in San Francisco, Lapham studied history but left graduate school to become a journalist (ask him about this and he'll mention an aversion to footnotes), eventually serving as editor of Harper's Magazine. The penchant for historical knowledge stuck with him, and upon retiring from Harper's, he established the American Agora Foundation, whose mission is "to foster, expand, promote, assist, fortify, and encourage the sense and use of history" through programs like Lapham's Quarterly, a magazine which takes the notion of historical context to the extreme.
Each issue of Lapham's Quarterly explores one theme in depth through a unique format, by juxtaposing essays and excerpts from writers of various time periods and cultures. Lapham's Quarterly is the only magazine that I can think of where science fiction author and essayist William Gibson shares air time with Du Fu, a Tang Dynasty poet. The contributor list for "The City" includes George Packer, Jane Jacobs, and Sophocles. "The criterion," states Lapham, "is whether the writing is any good -- and fun to read."
After spending the last month with "The City," I can vouch that Lapham and his editors have done their job. "The City" is not something to be read in a day, or even a week, but rather something to be picked up again and again and read slowly over time. Readers used to skimming headlines need not apply. Divided into subsections (Metropolis, Citizen and Civilization -- writings on the physical city, its residents, and its culture), this issue clocks in at nearly 175 pages of excerpts and 25 pages of newly commissioned articles. The cities represented vary from Carthage to Detroit, Mecca to Dongguan. There's even room for Leonia (one of Italo Calvino's invisible cities).
Two hundred pages of non-linear text may sound overwhelming, but Lapham's goal is to attract a general audience, not solely an academic one. The American Agora Foundation has partnered with schools so that the quarterly can be used as a supplementary textbook, and another partnership with 826 Valencia is in the works. Apparently, it's been discovered that kids read better when they are interested in what they're reading.
There's a lesson here. While at first glance the magazine might look forbidding, who isn't interested in reading essays that compare cities to sewers, citadels, and corpses? Or an essay from H.L. Mencken about San Francisco in the 1920s, a town that he found to be "rich in loafing places" where "no one seems to work very hard?" We ought not to be scared off by the quarterly's list of authors, but amused by their parallels and conflicts.
Taken all together, "The City" doesn't provide an answer to the question of which city defines our contemporary era, of course. Because this is the era of the individual, of many fractured viewpoints, and of digital space. The multiple voices present in "The City" only attest to this. What "The City" provides -- or, what Lapham's Quarterly provides -- is even more valuable. Simply put, it's the opportunity to see how humanity continues to stack up to all those who came before. Because like it or not, sometimes we're just re-writing the same story, over and over again.