Design Matters with LEWIS LAPHAM

Published on 2018-06-17

As a cub reporter for The San Francisco Examiner in 1957, Lewis H. Lapham’s first assignment was the stuff of nightmares for many the aspiring journalist. Some reporters take up the pen because they want to delve into the vast underbelly of politics; others want to go behind the scenes of films and sporting events; still others yearn to document anything that might yield them a prize or enduring fame.

Lapham’s stated goal? Simply put, as he has said, “I couldn't imagine anything more exciting to do than to try to put words on paper.” He wanted to learn to write. So when his editor gave him a fluff assignment to cover a flower show in Oakland, he did just that: He wrote.

A basic newspaper article tends to run around 300–600 words. Lapham went to the show—and then he returned to his desk, hit the page, and turned in 4,000 words to his editor.

There aren’t many cut from the literary cloth like Lewis H. Lapham. And in a TL;DR hummingbird era when in-depth articles that would otherwise be regarded as magazine pieces of modest length are relegated to the dreaded moniker of “longreads,” words have become “content” and art and design pieces have become “assets,” the Laphams of the world seem perhaps more critical than they ever have before. 

A predilection for the written word seems to have long surged within him. At the age of 6, he made a deal with his mother: She agreed to read him Moby-Dick, but if he couldn’t keep up with the book, they would switch back to something more suited to a child of his age, such as Peter Rabbit. Outside the confines of his home, Lapham would regularly observe his grandfather, the mayor of San Francisco, living a life of public service—and doing it in a way that was uniquely his, pledging to only serve a single term so that he could call the shots as he saw fit, to the irritation of the establishment. 

Lapham went off to school, intending to be an historian. But after he returned home from Yale and Oxford (where he had studied with author C.S. Lewis), his father—who had worked as a journalist before moving on to financially greener pastures as a banking and shipping executive—wasn’t thrilled about his son’s new plans. Lapham stayed true to them.

He spent the 1960s writing for Life and The Saturday Evening Post, the latter of which even sent the young journalist to India to cover The Beatles’ Transcendental Meditation studies at the ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. (As the only journalist permitted inside, he would later document the experience in detail in the book With the Beatles in 2005.)

Lapham then joined Harper’s in 1971 and took its helm in 1976—kicking off a rare, career-defining pairing of an editor brilliantly in sync with his publication. Leading a magazine that began in 1850, maintaining and growing its circulation and hiring the next generation of writers to follow in the footsteps of Herman Melville, Jack London, Roald Dahl, Horatio Alger, Mark Twain and J.D. Salinger is no small feat. But Lapham did so masterfully, winning a host of National Magazine Awards—the industry’s equivalent of the Academy Awards—for everything from feature writing to essays to fiction to criticism, including the top honor or General Excellence in 1983 and 2006, the year he retired from Harper’s

After leaving Harper’s, the man who once fancied a future as an historian arguably came full circle when he founded the nonprofit Lapham’s Quarterly, a journal in which every issue carries a theme—such as music, luck, death, magic shows, celebrity, the future—and is comprised, brilliantly, of abridged historical texts, alongside contemporary prose on the subject. The result is comprehensive, stirring, often cathartic studies of massive topics. And again, his editorial oversight delivers, with pieces from the Quarterly finding homes in Best American Travel Writing, Best American Essays, Best Food Writing.

The magazine was a finalist for a National Magazine Award in 2011, and Lapham’s own writing won one in 1995, with his output being recognized for showcasing “an exhilarating point of view in an age of conformity.” And that is what Lapham has always been—in addition to, in some ways, seeming a bit like the last of his kind.

The last of the great working journalists who grew up a cub reporter charged with procuring daily bourbon from people in City Hall for the veteran journalists on the beat. The gadfly, a thinker hailing from a long line of thinkers to prod and challenge authority and the world around him with eloquence and elongated word counts. An editor living by his own rules, an unrepentant chainsmoker, puffing away with “a childish unwillingness to go along with authority, really.” A believer in his craft, and a keeper of the transcendent power of the past—as he told The Millions, it’s a cultural shame that writers don’t wield the power that they once did: “To be a writer was an important thing. There was the belief that writers could change the world. And the heroes were people like Camus, Yeats, even Auden, and Hemingway, Mailer. The notion that literature was going to come up with important answers. Solzhenitsyn—the novel as heroic. That’s an idea that comes out of the 19th century. That’s Victor Hugo in exile from the Second Empire in France. That’s what Flaubert was trying to do. Balzac was trying to do the same thing. Dickens. William Dean Howells in this country, Twain—the writer was a heroic kind of figure, or at least had that possibility.”

When he had to write about a flower show, he wrote 4,000 words. And today, that is an important thing.

—Zachary Petit, Design Matters Media Editor-in-Chief

Books by Lewis H. Lapham

Age of Folly: America Abandons Its Democracy 

Money and Class in America

With the Beatles

Pretensions to Empire: Notes on the Criminal Folly of the Bush Administration


Debbie: Lewis Lapham is perhaps best known for his time as the editor of Harper's Magazine, where he's not an emeritus editor. But Harper's is just a few chapters in his extraordinary career as a journalist, writer, and provocateur. He started as a newspaper reporter, and he's written about 10 books give or take. He now edits Lapham's Quarterly, a magazine about history and literature, and hosts his own podcast, The World In Time. One of his most recent issues of Lapham's Quarterly is a history of fake news. And throughout it all, he has remained a keen observer of public life, politics, and America's ruling class. Lewis Lapham, welcome to Design Matters. 

Lewis: It is a great pleasure to be at Design Matters, Debbie. 

Debbie: Oh thank you. Lewis, you've described your lifelong love affair with smoking as a childish unwillingness to go along with authority, and your friend, Ralph Nader, once offered to buy 1,000 subscriptions to Harper's if you'd quit. How are you doing with your cigarette habit these days? 

Lewis: I'm cutting it down. I'm not smoking as much, and I have a, one of those electronic devices. 

Debbie: So you're vaping now?

Lewis: From time to time. I go back and forth. 

Debbie: How do you compare the experience of vaping versus smoking? 

Lewis: Well, they keep making better electronics, and there's one called, I think it's called Jewel, which I now use, and it's close. 

Debbie: I miss smoking. I quit about 10 years ago, and not a day goes by that I don't think about what it would be like to start again. 

Lewis: I can sympathize. 

Debbie: Lewis, your great-grandfather owned businesses in the leather industry and was a founder of the Texaco Oil Company. Your grandfather was the mayor of San Francisco. Your father was a shipping and banking executive. Coming from a lineage like that, how much pressure was there on you to become someone and to do something great? 

Lewis: There wasn't, no pressure at all. I mean, my father suggested that I take up a career in banking, and was a little bit disappointed in my choosing to become a newspaper reporter, and he assured me that there was no future in it. 

Debbie: And did he always feel that way? 

Lewis: I think he secretly rather liked the notion of my becoming a reporter, because he, in his youth, had himself been a newspaper reporter for four years, of for the San Francisco Examiner, after he'd gotten out of Yale in 1931. And I think he'd gone rather reluctantly into the family shipping business. 

Debbie: So while he might not have ever admitted it, you think deep down he was proud?

Lewis: I think so. And I suspect that one of my reasons for becoming a writer or reporter was to do what my father had never done, in a way for him. 

Debbie: Oh wow. Did you ever tell him that? 

Lewis: No. 

Debbie: There's a lot about the male members of your esteemed family online and in books. But there isn't quite as much about the female side. And I'm wondering what influence your mother, Jane Foster, had on you. 

Lewis: She had a very strong influence on me. And I don't know much about her family, about her mother and her antecedents. But I do know in the family arguments ... We won't say arguments. Let us say discussions. 

Debbie: Heated discussions. 

Lewis: It usually, around the dinner table, it usually turned out to be that my mother and I were on one side, and my brother and my father were on the other side. And my mother had wanted, as a young girl, to become an actress. And she had a strong sense of the force of emotion. My father and my brother were strongly aligned with reason, both of them very pragmatic, and cut to the bottom line. And my brother was a wonderfully brilliant man, more brilliant than I am. But he took up a career in law. He went to Georgetown, and Washington Law School at night. Worked for a senator as a legislative assistant during the day. And then eventually ended up as the chief counsel of the CIA. 

Debbie: Did you ever get any inside information from him? 

Lewis: No. He didn't-

Debbie: You said that a little bit too fast, Lewis. 

Lewis: No, no, no. No, no. No. He was adamant about that. He didn't trust journalists. And even if a journalist was his brother, he made no exceptions. He had a very low opinion of journalists. 

Debbie: Even with your success and everything you accomplished? 

Lewis: Very, very. Journalism was a nest of lies from my brother's point of view. 

Debbie: Interesting how that theme has re-emerged in our society. 

Lewis: Yeah. 

Debbie: You said that you grew up in a household of books. 

Lewis: I did. 

Debbie: And at six years old, you asked your mother to read you Moby Dick. 

Lewis: I did. 

Debbie: And she agreed, but only if you could remember exactly what was happening along the way of her reading this to you. And she agreed. Otherwise, she wanted to read you Peter Rabbit. So Moby Dick versus Peter Rabbit. Was it difficult for you to keep up? 

Lewis: No. I managed to keep up, because my mother was very serious. If I couldn't remember what had been said in the prior reading, we would go directly to Peter Rabbit.

Debbie: I can see her threatening you with that. 

Lewis: But she did. And she did omit some of the long speculative chapters in which Melville, who has, as you know, a great talent for the metaphysics, goes off into discussions of the whiteness of the whale, and os on. She just skipped by those. 

Debbie: I'm sure you know this, but Harper's first introduced the American audience to Moby Dick by publishing a portion of it in the magazine in 1851. 

Lewis: I did know that. Also, it was the only favorable review that that book received. The New York critics in 1851 universally, with the exception of Harper's Magazine, reviled and dismissed the novel. 

Debbie: How does that cultural shift occur where something could be merely unanimously defiled. And then over years or decades, then suddenly the sentiment changes and we come around to realizing the worth of something that we probably should've seen at the beginning? 

Lewis: Well, not necessarily see it at the beginning. I don't know. It happens. Why it happens, I don't know. Times change, sensibility books that were very much in fashion in my youth went out of favor and now are beginning to be recovered. I'm thinking particularly of the novels of Joseph Conrad. I was brought up on, Conrad was another writer that I was reading before I was 10. And he'd been an enormously best selling writer in America in the 20s. But now I run into younger kids, and they tell me they've been reading Nos Promo or The Art of Darkness, or Lordship. The novel Nostromo is a magnificent novel. I've just gone back to reading it again myself, because On my podcast, I talked to a young historian, Columbia. She says that the word that he describes is the world we're now living in. It's the world of globalization. It's the world of taking over of comments and peoples with what Conrad calls the material interest, and what we know as the divine right of money. 

Lewis: Again, if you read the novel that way, it makes a lot of sense in time present as well as in time past. 

Debbie: You said that you developed an early love for words, and couldn't imagine anything more exciting to do than try to put words on paper. Do you still retain that fascination? 

Lewis: I do. Yes, I do. 

Debbie: How much writing do you do every day? 

Lewis: Probably about three hours, sometimes more than that. 

Debbie: Tell us a typical day in the life of Lewis Lapham. You wake up, and then what? 

Lewis: Well, I wake up. In order to keep my back in the reasonable working order, I have to do 20 minutes of exercises every morning. So I do that. I have a cup of coffee. I read the newspaper. 

Debbie: Which one? 

Lewis: I read the Times and I also read the New York Post. 

Debbie: That surprises me that you read the Post. I would've thought you were gonna say the New York Ties and the Washington Post, unless that's what you were referring to, and not the-

Lewis: No. No, no.

Debbie: ... the New York Post. 

Lewis: I was referring to the New York Post, yeah. Because there's some columnists on that side of the arguments that make a lot of sense to me, and I like to read John Podhoretz. I also like to read Rich Lowery, and I'm happy to entertain that point of view. They, when I was the editor of Harper's Magazine, in the 70s, there was, I thought, still something called a marketplace in ideas. And I was careful to publish writers on both what was then the rising conservative trend as well as liberal writers. So I would have issues of the magazine in which they would appear essays both by Michael Harrington on the left and Irving Crystal on the right. That was still possible in the 70s. But that went out the window in the 1980s. By the 80s, you're either one or the other. They don't speak to each other anymore. It had become, that's the era in which you see the rise of talk radio, Rush Limbaugh, and so on. And I can remember, in the 80s, I would ask some of the conservative writers to take part in a forum, but they wouldn't do it unless everybody else in the forum was on their same side. 

Debbie: What would be the point in that then? 

Lewis: Well, you see, that's what happens to the press. You have national review, you have nation, and the writers that appear in one don't appear in the other. And that gulf opens up in the 80s. 

Debbie: But now it's, it's a delta like we've never seen before. How do you-

Lewis: Now it's opened up to the entire social media. 

Debbie: Right. 

Lewis: It's a whole different ballgame. 

Debbie: And the news media, the television news media, it's hard to believe that if you were to watch MSNBC and Fox News on the same night, they're actually describing the same planet. 

Lewis: Well yeah, I've done that, and you're right. 

Debbie: How do you think we got to this place, and where do you think we're gonna be able to go? 

Lewis: I don't know. I think that's a leading question of our time. 

Debbie: Yeah. 

Lewis: Seriously. Have they, and I remember having a conversation not too long ago, and Michael Bloomberg is a supporter of the Quarterly. He put it exactly the same way you do. How do we have a meaningful politics, unless we have the words to express it. I think that one of the problems, one of the underlying problems is television, because even the print media, or a lot of the print media today is being make to the standard of television, which is to be very quick, and as little ambiguity as possible. I mean, ambiguity doesn't work until there's-

Debbie: And it's often perceived negatively. 

Lewis: Yeah. 

Debbie: It's rare that ambiguity is perceived positively. 

Lewis: Yeah. And you can't even be seen to stop and pause to think. Television is by definition, entertainment. It has to be, to be, to survive. And so, that happens in the 60s actually in this country, that news becomes entertainment. I start out in 1960, I'm a newspaper reporter for the Herald Tribune. I think there were eight daily morning papers in New York, or not morning. Some of them were afternoons. The Trib, of course, went out of business, and but then I become a contract writer for the Saturday Evening Post. The Post folded, and then I went to, then I started writing for Life. And Life Magazine was the other big mass circulation magazine of the time, and that was out of business by the end of the decade. In 1960, the President of the United States, Kennedy, once he's elected, wants to sit down and talk to the American people. He would either, there was a back page of the Post where the president would sit and talk to Joseph Alsop, and the Life Magazine equivalent was Teddy White, on the back page of Life. And then, of course, by 1970, a President of the United States would sit down and talk to Brinkley, or he would talk to television. It moved to television because television didn't have any distribution costs. The advertising moved away from magazines. I mean, the same kind of problem that it's just a repetition today of the, what's happening to newspapers, losing it to the internet and to Google. And that's what happened to the big magazines and quite a number of newspapers in the 60s, losing it to television. 

Debbie: What did you think about the stability of the industry at the time? You were working for two magazines, which while you were working for them closed, and then continued on, and ultimately ended up at Harper's. What did you think about the stability of the industry back then? 

Lewis: Well, I thought it was unstable. 

Debbie: Okay. Fair enough. 

Lewis: You know, yeah. I mean, I'd worked for the Herald Tribune, it folded. Before I went to the Post, I went, with a group of people, we started a new magazine called USA One, which was really a [inaudible 00:16:07] magazine. It lasted six months. That folded. Post folded. Life folded. 

Debbie: Look folded. Remember Look? 

Lewis: I do remember Look. And then, by the time I get to Harper's Magazine, it too was on the brink of-

Debbie: You were arbitrarily thrust into the position of managing editor at Harper's after a staff disagreement led to several people leaving. How hard was it for you to learn on the job to become managing editor so quickly?

Lewis: Well it was, I was very lucky, because the editor who went away in the staff agreement was a man named Willie Mars. His predecessor was a man named John Fisher, Jack Fisher, and Jack Fisher was in retirement, living in, just outside New Haven. He would come down a couple of days a week, and show me the ropes. He was a marvelous man. I mean, I learned a great deal from him. And I also learned a great deal from the man who had been my editor at the Saturday Evening Post, a man named Otto Friedrich. But so I learned a great deal from him, and I learned a great deal from Fisher. I was very lucky in my teachers. 

Debbie: Harper's is now the world's oldest continually published U.S. magazine. But around 1980, the family who owned Harper's decided to fold it. 

Lewis: That's right. 

Debbie: But the MacArthur Foundation jumped in and saved it. 

Lewis: Right. 

Debbie: In the transition, you were actually let go.

Lewis: I was let go after the transition. 

Debbie: What were you thinking at the time? Did you feel betrayed? Did you feel worried? Do you have a sense of doom? 

Lewis: Well yes and no. I mean, the, it's a complicated story, a fairly interesting one. I become editor of Harper's Magazine. I become managing editor whenever Willie went out the window, and I think that's 1971. 

Debbie: Yes. 

Lewis: And I'm managing editor. The Kohls family that owned the magazine brought in a man named Shnayerson, Bob Shnayerson, who'd been an editor at Time. And he became the editor of Harper's Magazine. And then in 1975, Shnayerson blotted his copy book. And I can't remember why. He leaves, and I become the editor. But the magazine, at that point, is in very precarious financial position. I mean, we're losing something, I believe over a million dollars a year. 

Debbie: That's a lot of money in those days. 

Lewis: That was a lot of money. 

Debbie: I mean, it's a lot of money today, but especially so then. Rick MacArthur and the MacArthur family came in. Rick MacArthur came to New York after the magazine folded-

Lewis: Right. 

Debbie: Joined the board of the magazine, the people that were left, and brought you back-

Lewis: That's right. 

Debbie: ... dubbing both you and Harper's national treasures. And I believe today he's the publisher. 

Lewis: He is. 

Debbie: What did it mean to you at that point that he went to bat for you like that, and what was your working relationship with him like over the course of the last few decades? 

Lewis: Oh, it's been very amiable. 

Debbie: It must be amazing to have somebody that believes in you that much. 

Lewis: It was. Yeah. Rick comes to see me. I'm in exile in the [inaudible 00:19:40] building, and I'm writing occasional columns for the Washington Post. And he asked me if I would come back. And I said I would come back, but only on three conditions. One, that I would have some say in the publishing strategy, what kind of market we were trying for. And two, that I could completely redesign it. And three, that all the members of the board who had fired me would themselves be fired. And to my astonishment, all three conditions were met. 

Debbie: He really believed in you. 

Lewis: He did. So we had a fine working relationship. 

Debbie: What was your strategy for the magazine when you came back? 

Lewis: Well, I wanted a magazine that published writers that wrote in their own voices, in the first person singular, and narrative whenever possible. I was not keen for policy pieces, you know. And I was not interested in what we should do to solve whatever the crisis is. I was interested in people who would go out and write about whatever really excited them, and describe what they had learned or seen or felt or knew. That would be a story worth telling. 

Debbie: You started new columns in departments such as readings and the iconic Harper's Index-

Lewis: Yeah. 

Debbie: ... that eventually took the magazine to its highest circulation, and it had a dozen national magazine awards. You did a remarkable job bringing new voices into our culture. How do you recognize or choose who to feature, to introduce, to support? 

Lewis: I would choose writers I liked. I mean, I would read a manuscript or, and it didn't take me very long. I mean, I didn't have to get more than four or five pages into it before I could hear a voice that I thought, this is a voice that I would like to hear more from. 

Debbie: Who are you most proud of bringing into-

Lewis: I'm proud of all of them. I mean, and I can't, somebody asked me that question the other day, and I couldn't remember them all. But there was Annie Dillard, Barry Lopez, to a certain extent Walter Karp, to another extent, a little bit, although I was not the first person to publish her, Barbara Ehrenreich, [Relana Kinkang 00:22:17], Matt Power, Donovan Hohn, Jack Hitt. It's a long list. Michael Pollan. 

Debbie: Yes. Talk about the deign. You have a really iconic cover.

Lewis: Yes. 

Debbie: Something that is highly recognizable even without the logo on the cover, which is one of the hallmarks of a great deign, that you know what it is without even the name on it. What gave you the sense that this would be something that A, would be interesting to look at from the newsstand, and also something that could have the longevity that it's had? It's been decades. 

Lewis: They changed the cover recently. You've noticed that. 

Debbie: That I have not noticed. 

Lewis: Well I have. Yeah. They've fooled around with it. They changed the balance of the-

Debbie: Oh, I'm actually devastated at the moment, thinking this. 

Lewis: Yeah. No. I mean, I designed the magazine with Sam Antupit, whose name I'm sure you know. 

Debbie: Yes. 

Lewis: I mean, he was the great designer of print publication. And we wanted to make a cover that spoke for itself. 

Debbie: Yeah. It's not fussy. 

Lewis: Yeah. Of course, with a quarterly, I've carried that the next step. But yeah. The idea was to have it recognizable on the newsstand from a distance, because it didn't look like every other magazine on the newsstand. 

Debbie: Talk about the Harper's Index. How did that come to be? 

Lewis: That came to be because I, again, in the years I'm away from Harper's Magazine, in 1981, 83, one of the things I was doing was writing a column every other week for the Washington Post, and I wrote a column like that. I mean, I imagined some kind of an index in which one could guess the way of the world. It was the prototype of the, and I wrote it as a column. And then when I got back to the magazine, I thought I'd turn it into a feature. 

Debbie: Lewis, for people who might not be aware of what the Harper's Index is, how would you describe it?

Lewis: Well, it's a collection of facts, but are numbers. The way I thought of it was, the way you drill for oil. I mean, the drill goes down however many thousand feet, and then they bring it up and they look at the casing, in which they can see the layers of the way the earth is laid on top of itself. 

Debbie: So geological slice. 

Lewis: Yes. It's a geological slice. And that's what I thought. A geopolitical, social, economic slice, right. 

Debbie: There's a continuity in any Harper's Index, where the topics flow from line to line. 

Lewis: Yeah. 

Debbie: But they evolve ever so slightly. 

Lewis: Right. 

Debbie: Sometimes a little bit less slightly than others, ultimately resulting in a narrative in and of itself. 

Lewis: Right. 

Debbie: What were you trying to communicate through that narrative?

Lewis: A sense of proportion or a sense of things aren't necessarily what they seem, dear reader. There are other ways of looking at this, right? And usually, the technique was juxtaposition. In other words, there was one year where the government's contribution to the National Endowment for the Arts was $150 million. And then somebody at Harper's Magazine calls up and asks, "How much does the government spend a year on the Marine band?" And it turned out that it was $150 million. And so you put those things together. The index was created that way. It wasn't just passive, waiting for things to fall off the tree. 

Debbie: You went looking for them. 

Lewis: You had to go looking for them. And yeah, during most of the time that I was there, I had an absolutely brilliant editor named Charis Conn, and Charis had a, I let her do it. She understood it, and she was brilliant at it. 

Debbie: Yeah. Absolutely. And I think what was so brilliant about, and still is, is the message that it provides without ever actually referring to any message. 

Lewis: Yeah. It's like a small kind of metaphor or haiku. It's that kind of a form. 

Debbie: Yeah. It's an existential double take. I think that's the way I would describe it. You retired from Harper's in 2006. Why? 

Lewis: I wanted to do this, the Quarterly. You know, the last five or six years that I was at Harper's, I was reading more and more history, and finding that more useful and informative, and strengthening than the journalism that I was reading. I mean, the journalism began to sound the same. Some of it was very good, but most of it wasn't, not particularly good, or at least I wasn't learning anything from it. But I was learning from my reading of history. And all was [inaudible 00:27:48]. And so this was an idea I very much wanted to do. And I had a, the history book club asked me in 1999 to do a short book on the end of the world, because we were coming up on the Millennium. And so I did that. And that was the original design for the Quarterly. And then I went to Rick, and I said, "Well look. Let me do this jointly. You have the Harper's monthly, and let's have the Harper's Quarterly." But Rick didn't wanna do that.

Debbie: Why? 

Lewis: He just didn't think it was worth it. He didn't think there'd be enough people who would read it, or it would take too much of my time away from working on the monthly, and whatever. And they-

Debbie: Was it a hard decision to leave Harper's to strike out on your own? 

Lewis: Yeah. Yeah. Sure. 

Debbie: It's with your own money and your own-

Lewis: I didn't have any money. I don't have any money. But I had to raise it. 

Debbie: That's what I mean. 

Lewis: Yeah. I thought about it for a long time. And I figured, well, whatever I was. I think I was 72. Clearly late in the fourth quarter. 

Debbie: Well if not then, when, right? 

Lewis: Exactly. So that's what happened. 

Debbie: You described the target audience for Lapham's Quarterly as people who wish they had paid more attention in school. Why that type of target market? 

Lewis: Well, the judgment that I made on the basis of my reading of the College book of letters to the editor. And I've been reading a lot of letters to the editor over the years, and I answered many of them back. And it was a certain type of mind. People that had never given up the love of learning. And among them, there were people who had made some success in the world. I mean, they'd raised a family. They'd pay their taxes. And now that they were 45, they had time to read, or time to pursue what interested them. It is my view, and my belief, I have no proof, but I think there are a lot of people like that in America. In the 30s, and even into the 40s, the bestseller lists used to always be a work of history. You can see some of that beginning to come back when you see the success of books written by David McCullough or Stephen Greenblatt, or Simon Schama. And when you can also see the market for historical docudrama on television. 

Debbie: Or Hamilton.

Lewis: Or Downton Abbey. And there is a real interest in history I think. And historical consciousness is a thing that the television tends to drive out, and also the internet. I mean, the whole miraculous speed of the internet and television, things come and go so quickly that nobody can remember what happened yesterday, much less last week or last year. And so they lose track of their own story. They don't know where they've been, who they are, and why they are, or where they might be going. I mean, and I think that's one of the causes for the anxiety, and I won't call it depression, but I mean, unhappiness floating around in society, because people feel marooned, and the internet doesn't help that. It makes them more marooned. And-

Debbie: Why do you think it does that? How do you think it does that? 

Lewis: Because everybody, I mean, they can make their own little world, right? They only have to see what they wanna see. And they only have to, again, it's what happens to the media in the 80s, constantly looking in a mirror. 

Debbie: What I think is unfortunate about only reading online is the lack of surprise that you allow for yourself. If you're looking through a magazine or a newspaper, you might be looking for a specific column, but in route to that column, you might see things that you didn't expect to see. 

Lewis: Yeah. 

Debbie: And that is not possible really online, unless it happens to be next to-

Lewis: Yeah. 

Debbie: ... what you're looking at. 

Lewis: But it's hard to make a machine do surprise. 

Debbie: In a New York Time article about your publication, about Lapham's Quarterly, you said the great rush of the electronic media tends to eliminate the past. So I want to know how you feel it does that. And I also wanna ask you about Lapham's Quarterly. Do you think that it's a reaction to that? 

Lewis: No. The premise of Lapham's Quarterly is that the past is an enormous resource from which we can learn. And when you think about it, the past is the only thing we can change. 

Debbie: How is that? 

Lewis: Because that's what we have in our heads. 

Debbie: So we can only change our perception of the past. We can't really change the activities. 

Lewis: No. You can't change the activities. But that is not the only part of the past. In other words, let's say the 19th century, okay? We're gonna study the Battle of Waterloo. Napoleon's still in on his horse. King of England is still on his throne. The Indian subcontinent is part of the British Empire. But the light in which Napoleon or the King, or India are to be seen changes. History is not what happened 200, 2000 years ago. It's a story about what happened 2000=

Debbie: It's a memory. It's a memory of what happened. 

Lewis: It's a memory. And that is the reality. Stephen Greenblatt has a wonderful new book, which I talked to him about on my own podcast a couple of weeks ago. It's called The Rise And Fall of Adam and Eve. And it's the place of the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. It's entirely fake news. I mean, it is. And so is The Trojan Horse. But the place of that story in the imagination of Western Christendom for the last 2000 odd years is real. Napoleon defined history as a fable agreed upon.  Your connection to the past is in your mind. And that's Virginia Wolf. "All the world is mine." And looked at one way, she's right. 

Debbie: But when thinking about-

Lewis: I mean, and you can see the monument of ... Let's go and talk about what's real and what isn't real, alright? There are certain things you can tell me about, let's say what, the making of the Constitution of the United States. Here are well educated, well prosperous gentlemen in Philadelphia, in 1787. The thing that they're trying to establish is an oligarchy. Democracy is something they look upon as a great evil. Adams says, "Democracy will destroy all civilization." 

Debbie: Why did he feel that way? 

Lewis: Because it's the mob, the voice of the people, the uneducated, illiterate people. Madison feels the same way. Madison thinks that the common man, he's afraid of what he calls the "turbulent passions of the common man, who will indulge in reckless agitation for the equality of income, the abolition of debt, and other wicked projects." Okay? 

Lewis: So what the founders mean by the constitution is veery different from what the constitution is to us. 

Debbie: Well, also the whole notion of "We the people." 

Lewis: Right. 

Debbie: What people? And what we, because that is, that "we," and that, "the people," aren't the people-

Lewis: No.

Debbie: ... that are in our-

Lewis: No, no. 

Debbie: ... culture today. 

Lewis: No, no. No. It's a very limited group. It's people who are educated, people who have some degree of property. 

Debbie: People who are white men. 

Lewis: People who are white. Men. And women are not part of the me. 

Debbie: They're not part of the "We the people," at all. 

Lewis: No. They're not part of the "We." Neither are the black Africans. Neither are people below a certain amount of income, who don't hold property. 

Debbie: So we've changed the past. The way that we currently view our history is very different from the intent. 

Lewis: Well yeah. But that was actually changed by 1820. I mean, by 1820, America has already become a country where the rule of law is better understood as the divine right of money. Lincoln's phrasing of it comes out of the Civil War. "We, the government of the people, shall not perish from the earth." And there's never been a government of the people by the people. It doesn't work. 

Debbie: So what do you think about our current political times? What is your view of what's happening in the world right now, or in the United States right now? 

Lewis: Well, I think we've given way to the divine right of money. I think what we have running, making our laws and operating our government is a stupefied plutocracy. I think we're living in a, you know, our economy is based on constant war. The extent of criminal enterprise in the United States today is truly amazing. I mean, the IRS estimates $400 billion a year evaded taxes. And these are actual numbers. It's estimated that $50 million in wage theft, employers who rig their employees paychecks, don't pay them for overtime. And the thing about the founders was that yes, the constitution was about property. But they were also men of the 18th century. They had the intellectual idealism and energy of the 18th century enlightenment. They also were firmly steeped in the moral virtues of the New Testament. I mean, these, the Declaration of Independence is a gift from God. That's their authority. 

Lewis: And they set up their oligarchy, Adams and Hamilton, and you know, the people in Philadelphia, on the ground, again, I quote Madison. Madison, "So that the government shall be conducted by men with most wisdom to discern and most virtue to pursue the common good." And they were men, they had that. They had both the wisdom and the virtue. And they thought of the government as the way the Roman republic thought of it, as a race publica, or a thing, a living organism that required the constant care and attention on the part of the management. Politics was a noble undertaking. Machiavelli believed that. So did the founders in the American Republic. And the constitution is made to operate on virtue. 

Lewis: Now, you asked me where we are today. And what's happened is that those values that were implicit in the constitution and understood in 1787, have been chased out of the society, because as society goes through the last, I don't care where you get it to start, but in the last say certainly 60 years, under the pressure of rapid and violent change, social change, sexual revolution, men, women, technology, jobs lost, people deserting the churches, all of those kinds of sociological upheaval, as well as economic upheaval with the rising boat of wages for the middle and the-

Debbie: No trickle down economics. 

Lewis: No trickle down economics. And when you lose value, when all other values seem to fail, the value that you can hold onto, or that you seem to hold onto is money, right? 

Debbie: Wouldn't it be interesting if as a culture we hoarded time as much as we try to hoard money? 

Lewis: Yes. That's right. 

Debbie: You told the millions that our problem is how do we make a political discourse out of emojis. 

Lewis: Right. 

Debbie: I love that line. Tell me a little bit more about what you meant by that. 

Lewis: Well, just let's go back to the constitution. The founders, they know how to read and write. I mean, the understanding of law, of what we mean by democracy, is words. It's a story. And how do you tell a story? Go back to your fable, with an emoji. 

Debbie: I mean, you talked about ambiguity before. I think emojis take a lot of ambiguity out of language. 

Lewis: I mean, you know, you read Harper's Magazine back in the 30s and the 20s, all the way back to 1850, and the vocabulary that the writers use, they're not trying to be fancy. They're not trying to be elitist or pretentious. It's just that they have those words in their mind. I mean, our loss of language and vocabulary has been substantial since the coming of television. Also, it really, I mean, the great dominant art of the 20th century is film. And I don't know if you've ever read a film script but it's pretty pathetic. 

Debbie: You talked a little while ago about being in the fourth quarter. 

Lewis: Yes. 

Debbie: Your fourth quarter is very busy. 

Lewis: It is. 

Debbie: You're using your time well. 

Lewis: Yes. 

Debbie: You are publishing a magazine that is, as McSweeney’s Internet Tendency surmised it best. I'll read it: "If we sat around lamenting about all the book or magazine ideas we wished we'd thought of, this one would be tops. We should pick huge topics, topics that intimidate us with all their possibilities. We would've said, 'Had we thought of this,' and then we'll compile all of the best writing on these topics going back to ancient times. Then we'll add some amazing contemporary writers and make it all one huge narrative, spanning the breadth of human existence. And we'll do this every three months." 

Debbie: That's the way they described Lapham's Quarterly. 

Lewis: Oh my gosh. Eggers is a great man. 

Debbie: He is. So you also have this podcast. 

Lewis: Yeah. 

Debbie: Tell me what you'd like your legacy to be. 

Lewis: Oh, I would like to be known from one or two books, probably a book that I have yet to write. 

Debbie: Age of Folly was pretty good. 

Lewis: Well, I've got it-

Debbie: Timely as well, given everything that's happened. 

Lewis: I'd like to write a history of my own times, which would be, in part, a story of my own life. But not confessional, not my sex life, but what I have seen of the world, and what I have learned. I mean, Gibbons says that history is nothing but a collection of man's crimes, right? But it's not. It's a great storehouse of man's greatness. Art, ideas, government. I mean, that's it. I mean, the history is what men and women have found to be, you know, over their long trek across the frontiers of time, I mean, what they found to be useful, beautiful, or true. And that can be scratching on stone of papyrus, or it can be ships' logs, or it can be coins. It can be buildings. It can be five act plays and three part songs. That is your most precious inheritance. Goethe says it, the poet. He says, "He who cannot draw on 3,000 years is living hand to mouth." 

Lewis: Lapham's Quarterly is drawing on 3,000 years, and is living high on the hog. 

Debbie: Lewis Lapham, thank you so much for making our world a bit easier to understand for so long now. And thank you for joining me today on Design Matters. 

Lewis: Thank you very much, Debbie. 

Debbie: Lewis Lapham is the editor of Lapham's Quarterly, which you can find in bookstores or at This is the thirteenth year I've been doing Design Matters, and I'd like to thank you for listening. And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both. I'm Debbie Millman, and I look forward to talking with you again soon.