Lapham’s Quarterly is a cultural treasury

[Tom Biederbeck] It may be a commonplace to observe that the word magazine comes from the Arabic makhzan, for “storehouse” implying variety and abundance. Still, Lapham’s Quarterly is a magazine that fills the definition better than most. Each issue, beautifully printed on fine paper — including separate matte cover — addresses a different theme, drawing on writing and imagery from across the centuries, including commissioned essays by some of today’s best authors.

I’ve had a good year discovering magazines (I wrote about the new Lucky Peach here). Lapham’s Quarterly, while it isn’t new, having been published since 2008, is new to me. How exactly did I miss this treasure?

Frank Serra as Hiram Abiff in Cremaster 3 by Matthew Barney, 2002. Photo is by Chris Winget. Lapham’s Quarterly summer 2012.

Every issue opens with a preamble by the editor, Lewis H. Lapham, also Harper’s editor emeritus and correspondent. Following are 100 “Voices in Time” — selections from the “annals and archives of the past” — and newly commissioned writing from scholars and authors. An unforgettable parade of theme-specific photos, paintings, charts, graphs and maps complete the package.

Ironic Portrait of François Chabas by Jules Chevrier, 1858. Laphams Quarterly spring 2012.

Says the magazine’s website, “Cicero made the point fifty years before the birth of Christ that, ‘Not to know what happened before one was born is always to be a child.’ Lapham’s Quarterly recognizes and promotes Cicero’s notion that to know our history is to know ourselves; that, indeed, we have nothing else with which to build the future except the lumber of the past. By maintaining a keen focus on a single theme in each issue, LQ endeavors to reclaim our oft-forgotten history and to present it to a widespread audience. Issue by issue, Lapham’s Quarterly seeks to forge men and women from Cicero’s children, to spread a love of history to anyone who picks up a copy.”

Does Lapham’s Quarterly have the most interesting contributors page in all of publishing? Eusebius, Helen Keller, Lewis Carroll, H.G. Wells, Hazlitt, Schopenhauer … Lenny Bruce! Epictetus! A world of knowledge at your fingertips.

Just so. This isn’t lightweight stuff. The degree of care and scholarship in the selections — which range from Blake to Borges, from Goya to Motherwell — opens up a world of knowledge and art in a concise and consistently winning way. It’s like having the greatest cultural conversation you never had, right at hand on your bookshelf. And it looks great there, too.

Back page, summer 2012 issue

Now I’m searching into back issues — and I’ve ordered the Winter 2009 “Eros” issue. That should be fun. Consider it a subscription to yourself.

Top photo: summer and spring 2012 issues. All photos © 2012 StudioAlex.

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Comments (2)

  1. Posted by Jessica on 04.8.13 at 11:53 am

    Where are you ordering the Eros issue from? It’s out of stock and not on amazon and I’d love to get a copy for myself. Thanks!

  2. Posted by Tom Biederbeck on 04.8.13 at 12:03 pm

    Unfortunately, single copies of the Eros issue are sold out. You might try telephoning the home site to see if they offer a package of Volume II issues. The issue includes an incredible essay on sensuality by the great American writer William H. Gass. “Not About the Money” is available online here:

    I don’t know if it’s complete or excerpted, but it’s sure worth reading.

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