Lapham's Quarterly on the City

Lapham's Quarterly on the City

By Aaron Britt
I fell hard for Lapham's Quarterly earlier this year when by chance I happened into a bookstore shortly before founder Lewis Lapham gave not so much a reading as a recounting of his decades as a journalist. He was as erudite as he was well-dressed and his talk ranged from his young days in San Francisco and with the San Francisco Chronicle through his time as the editor of Harper's to the founding of Lapham's Quarterly. His brand of intellectual inquiry is far ranging and deeply indebted to history, and reading through an issue of the journal feels less like a trek through the varieties of thought the last several milennia has produced than a perfectly made cache of knowledge with which to arm oneself for the next serious debate. The current issue of Lapham's Quarterly is dedicated to The City, and it's well worth your time.

You can only see a portion of what's in the pages of the issue online, but it's a telling survey. I nodded vigorously despite myself when I heard Lapham he talked about the "poverty" of those who exist without a sense of history, and the majority of Lapham's Quarterly is dedicated to extracts of historical writings germane to the issue's theme.

A fine example in the City is the Athenian Pledge of Allegiance from 335 BC. Another has HL Mencken rhapsodizing about the beauties of San Francisco, though not before a scathing indictment of the cities of the east. Another entry comes from a letter from Hernan Cortes, describing Tenochtitlán.

This photograph of Bernard Hailstone painting in Blitz ruins is from the Art Archive / Imperial War Museum / Eileen Tweedy. Courtesy Lapham's Quarterly

Once you're through with your history lesson, Lapham includes essays from contemporary writers, the best of which comes from New Yorker writer George Packer. He posits that we westerners have essentially lost the ability to understand one of the great citys of literature: Dickens' London. But those who inhabit the teeming metropolises of the developing world might just have a better view of things. He travels from Singapore to Lagos, Nigeria in the essay, and it's a splendid take on Dickens' imagination of London, and one that equates the dirty, striving metropolis of English literature with those in the third world.

Recently we at Dwell did an issue on Megacities, and if that was at all inspiring, pick up the current issue of Lapham's Quarterly.


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