Lapham’s Quarterly Spring 2012: Means of Communication. Finished!

(From p. 84, copyright Getty Images.)

I’m finished in that I have read the entire publication once and the first third or so a second time in an attempt at a more thorough understanding.  I read Lapham’s intro, Word Order, about five times in that attempt.  I’m grateful there isn’t a quiz.  This would be a great publication for a reading group to discuss each quarter.

I’ve finished in the nick of time as I’ve already received a link to the Summer 2012 issue, MAGIC SHOWS, “which delves into mankind’s predilection through the millennia for the marvelous, the mysterious, and the supernatural”.

The Winter 2012 issue was FAMILY. Family relationships have been similar throughout history. Father, mother, brother, sister, son, daughter.

MEANS of Communication have changed. Language, different languages, spoken word, writing on stone, writing on paper, printing on paper, telegraph with the speed of electricity, spoken through wireless radio, television, computers, email, internet, text, twitter. It almost seems like we’ve come full circle to the Tower of Babel.

What has happened to Communication when the Means have changed?

Of the three sections under Voices in Time (Broadcast, Written, Spoken) I personally enjoyed the third section the most.  Everything else from cover to cover is bursting with value.


I thought ‘Arthur Koestler Taps Out The Message’ was excellent (communicating through stone cell walls during the 1930’s Spanish Civil War).  ‘Tim O’Brien Tells A True War Story’ (1969, Vietnam) piqued by interest.  (I was there though not in any circumstances he was describing.j)  This item is available to the public: Tim O’Brien Tells a True War Story: 

‘Edith Wharton’s Pure English’ was outstanding.  I chastise myself daily for my own bad grammar.  Does hardly anyone else even care anymore?  Talk about the deterioration of language and communication.

Another 1930’s Spanish Civil War piece ‘Words Hurled In Battle’ by George Orwell is notable.  It’s about talking to the enemy during frequent lulls in battle.  “I must admit I was amazed and scandalized when I first saw it done.  The idea of trying to convert your enemy instead of shooting him!” (p. 150.)

‘Dating Manual’ by Andreas the Chaplain from The Art Of Courtly Love, c. 1185, is hilarious.  It is available to the public: Dating Manual: 

‘Welcome to the Academy’ by Francois Rabelais, c. 1532, is almost equally as funny.

If I continue I will list nearly everything.  Of course there isn’t a ‘bad’ essay in the entire publication, just a few that are less comprehensible to me than others.  This is still the finest exposure I can imagine to literature from all of recorded history.  I am grateful to have been informed of it.

Following are reminders I noted to myself on the first portion of the issue.  Perhaps they will give you a notion of the subject matter.  The links ‘should’ take you to those articles that are available online to the public.  If not, I’ve erred.


  • Nicholson Baker’s Last Stand: 2008 / New York City :
  •     Monitoring article editing on Wikipedia.
  • Spring Cleaning: 213 BC / Qin :
  •     Sidebar. Book burning in civilized ancient China.
  • H.G. Wells Makes a Modest Proposal: 1936 / London :
  •     “The whole human memory can be, and probably in a short time will be, made accessible to every individual.”
    “…it is difficult not to believe that in quite the near future, this Permanent World Encyclopedia, so compact in its material form and so gigantic in its scope and possible influence, will not come into existence.” (p. 26)
  •     Prescient Wells at it again. What would he think of the WWW?
  • Instant Messaging: c. 1190 BC / Argos :
  •     Instant messaging by bonfire. The speed of light?
  • Old News: 1917 / Prague :
  •    Franz Kafka. The Emperor in Peking hears all, the provinces hear nothing. I haven’t read Kafka (until now).
  • Horsepower: c. 1860 / United States :
  •    The successful, brief reign of the Pony Express.
  • Bruce Chatwin Listens to the Mountains: 1986 / Alice Springs :
  •     Songlines in the Earth. Noteworthy Aboriginal lore.
  • Spreading the Word: 1312 / Vienne :
  •     Sidebar. Edict that thou shalt train in languages in order to spread Christianity.
  • Short-Order Cooks of Half-Baked Information: c. 1960 / New York City :
  •     The title says it all. Cutting corners and copy in the name of journalism.
  • Synesthesia: 1751 / Paris :
  •     “…fancy that everyone who walks through a picture gallery is really unconsciously acting the part of a deaf man who is amusing himself by examining the dumb who are conversing on subjects familiar to him.”
  • Side quote: “Do not the most moving moments of our lives find us all without words?” Marcel Marceau, 1958 (p. 41)
  • Lest the Wicked Should Triumph: 1473 / Murano :
  •     (Filippo de Stratta, from “Polemic Against Printing”, p. 43-44)
    “Writing indeed, which brings in gold for us,
    should be respected and held to be nobler
    than all goods, unless she has suffered
    degradation in the brothel of the printing
    presses. She is a maiden with a pen, a
    harlot in print.” [Down with printing! It corrupts us! – JH]
  • A Torrent of Zealous Scribbling: c. 1940 / Montagnola :
  •     It took a couple of readings for me to begin to decipher this piece, as one might expect from a slice of Herman Hesse and The Glass Bead Game. I didn’t understand Fueilleton (originally a kind of supplement attached to the political portion of French newspapers, consisting chiefly of non-political news and gossip, literature and art criticism, a chronicle of the latest fashions, and epigrams, charades and other literary trifles. ). Then there was ‘self-persiflage’. (Persiflage: light, bantering talk or writing. .)Noteworthy passages:

    “…the feuilletons.
    They seem to have formed an uncommonly pop-
    ular section of the daily newspapers, were pro-
    duced by the millions, and were a major source
    of mental pabulum for the reader in want of
    culture. They reported on, or rather “chatted”
    about, a 1,001 items of knowledge.”
    (Reminds me of the too-much-information, too-little-substance age we now find ourselves in.)

    “In some periods, interviews with well-
    known personalities on current problems were
    particularly popular. … Noted chemists or piano
    virtuosos would be queried about politics, for
    example, or popular actors, dancers, gymnasts,
    aviators, or even poets would be drawn out on
    the benefits and drawbacks of being a bachelor,
    or on the presumptive causes of financial crises,
    and so on. All that mattered in these pieces was
    to link a well-known name with a subject of
    current topical interest.”
    (Ahh. The celebrity expert on all things outside their area of expertise. We know that one well these days too.)

  • Drum Circle: 1841 / Equatorial Guinea :
  •     Messaging via drum beat.
  • Breaking the Bad News: 1961 / Washington, DC :
  •     “…when television is bad, nothing is worse.”…sit down in front of your own television set… …for a day…” “Keep your eyes glued to that set…  I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.
    You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, …private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons.  And endlessly, commercials–many screaming, cajoling, and offending.  And most of all, boredom.  True, you’ll see a few things you will enjoy.  but they will be very, very few.” (p. 47)
    [1961!  How times have changed now in 2012. -JH]
  • Dissenting Opinion: 1798 / Richmond :
  •     James Madison protesting the Alien and Sedition Acts.  The call for individual rights against big government began early.
  • New Media: 1846 / Paris :
  •     An amusing, wide-eyed observation of the printing of books, almost as if the person had just arrived from Mars. “They take down information and benefit from it, not depending on memory for fear of forgetting it.” (p. 50)
  • Clouded Culture: 2010 / Berkeley :
    “People, not machines, made the Renaissance.”
    “What is important about printing presses is not the mechanism, but the authors.”
    “The digital flattening of expression into a global mush…”
    “…people are encouraged by the economics of free content, crowd dynamics, and lord aggregators to serve up fragments instead of considered whole expressions or arguments.”
  • Seen But Not Heard: 1922 / New York City :
    1922: New York City – Walter Lippman
    “…the more rich and the more subtle that which he has to say, the more his meaning will suffer as it is sluiced into standard speech and then distributed again among alien minds.”
    [As in today’s sound bytes which commentators attack letter by letter to determine ‘what did he really mean?’ -JH]
  • Turn On, Tune In: 1915 / Congers, NY
  • To the Barricades: 2011 / Cairo
  • Nothing to Say: 1854 / Concord
  • Media Saturation: 1992 / Washington, DC
  • Falling Off the Donkey: c. 350 / Syria
  • Martin Luther Goes Viral: 1518 / Wittenberg

If there is one publication I plan to read for the rest of my life I think it is safe to say it is Lapham’s Quarterly.

6 thoughts on “Lapham’s Quarterly Spring 2012: Means of Communication. Finished!

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