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The Thinking Person's Reader's Digest | The Nation

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The Thinking Person's Reader's Digest

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Historians cherish the belief that history is a useful field of study for those wishing to understand the present as well as the past, just as journalists derive great satisfaction from the notion that their hasty work is the "first draft of history." And it seems entirely consistent with Lewis Lapham's distinguished career in journalism that he would decide that creating a quarterly that seeks to explain the present with illuminations from the past would constitute the proper coda to his long and honored term as the editor of Harper's Magazine.

About the Author

Evan Cornog
Evan Cornog is a political historian, a dean at Columbia Journalism School, and the publisher of Columbia Journalism...

Volume 1, Number 1 of Lapham's Quarterly has just been published, and there's a lot to like, and dislike, about it. It is entitled "States of War," and contains a sobering collection of writings on war, collated from the past few thousand years. One's reaction to the entire effort may perhaps be gauged by how one feels about the two-page spread headed "Among the Contributors" that follows the contents pages. Under thumbnail portraits of some of those excepted are brief biographies of such luminaries as Shakespeare ("magister ludi of the English language"), Homer (composer of "books one and two of the Western Canon"), Herodotus ("known as the 'Father of History' ") and Jessica Lynch (whose experiences in Iraq were transformed into a "soap opera" by the "American news media").

How many things are there to dislike about this? The obviousness of most of the biographies, the vanity of sponsoring such a distinguished array of authors, most dead and unable to defend themselves against anthologization, and the off-key quality of some of the write-ups. To the extent that the news media got the Jessica Lynch story wrong, for example, it was with a significant boost from the military public-relations machine. Shouldn't that be mentioned? And her story was turned into an action movie, not a soap opera. (Similarly, the Shawnee leader Tecumseh is described as a person who "failed to incite American Indians into open rebellion against the U.S. government," a description that will surprise those familiar with the role Tecumseh and his forces played as British allies in the War of 1812.)

We all make mistakes, but Lapham's pontifical way of presenting himself makes his stumbles more rankling. But if it cannot be said of him that he wears his learning lightly, Lapham has read widely, and his selections on the grisly topic of war are powerful. He combines the familiar (Shakespeare's Henry V crying "Once more into the breach," Wilfred Owen's corrosive First World War poem "Dulce et Decorum Est") with the more obscure (interviews with participants in the Rwandan genocide of the 1990s), and includes long-underappreciated writers like E.B. Sledge, whose unflinching memoir of war in the Pacific has only recently begun to get the degree of recognition it deserves. The journal is nicely illustrated and garnished with pithy quotes from across the centuries.

It is tempting to play the omissions game, but Lapham has provided so many strong choices that it seems mean-spirited to fault him for leaving out some particular aspect of the vast literature that man's fondness for combat has spawned.

But the question that intrudes after reading through the first issue is, whom is this intended for? A widely read person who has an interest in war will surely have encountered many of these selections in the past. Such a reader would doubtless find some engaging new selections in "States of War"--but would they be enough to alter that reader's attitude toward war in the present? And while it would be a great thing if those not familiar with this literature were inspired to read through it on the basis of this issue of Lapham's Quarterly, one suspects that this is an unlikely outcome.

After a great career in journalism, Lewis Lapham seems to think the best use of his talents is to produce a sort of thinking person's Reader's Digest. How sad to think that he might both be right on the merits and yet be aiming too high for the present moment.

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