Lewis Lapham: What I Read

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How do people deal with the torrent of information that rains down on us all? What's the secret to staying on top of the news without surrendering to the chaos of it? In this series, we ask people who seem well-informed to describe their media diets. This is from a conversation with Lewis Lapham, editor of Lapham's Quarterly, and editor emeritus and national correspondent for Harper's magazine.

When I was the editor of Harpers magazine, I used to keep up with the news. I don't really do that any more. What I do is I primarily read books. I don't read the Internet at all. I wake up in the morning and read for probably an hour, hour and a half before I actually get up. That will be a book. I don't read the newspaper until I have a coffee and head to the office.

On the way to the office, I read the New York Times in paper. When I get to the office, mostly I'm reading for the quarterly, in which case I'm pursuing an idea--whether it's War, Money, Education or the City--whatever the forthcoming issue will address. So I'll be reading Thucydides, Gibbon, Voltaire, Dorothy Parker, Herman Melville. It's a very broad canvas.

As for magazines, I read Harper's, the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, the Nation, National Review, and the Financial Times. That's about it. I don't read anything on the screen. If I want to read something on the computer--for example, I don't subscribe to the Washington Post, but I wanted to read the series they did on Top Secret America--I'll ask one of my editors to take it off the Internet. I have people to help me plunder the Web. They also do a good job gathering subscribers for the quarterly through its website.

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Most of the journalism debate is really a narrow arc. I don't find much difference between the opinions on the left and the opinions on the right. They're both kind of worrying to death some fairly obvious fault in mankind.

If I were editing Harper's magazine still, I'd still have to keep a lot closer to the news or the Internet than I do now. I saw your Media Diets with David Brooks and Frank Rich. I'm assuming that I would have to read more along those lines. But one of the reasons I left Harper's and founded this quarterly was in order to escape that. To read and re-read books from which I know I have the chance to learn something. More importantly, for the sheer pleasure of it.

In the New York Review of Books, I follow Jonathan Raban and always looked forward to reading Tony Judt. In Harper's I read Garrett Kaiser, Curtis White, Jack Hitt, and Barbara Ehrenreich. Wherever they can be found, I read William Pfaff, Simon Schama and John Crowley.

I don't watch the news shows, but I do watch C-SPAN. I learn from actually watching the policy analyst or the politician or the government servant in his own voice. And I can come to my own conclusions about his character and intention.

I listen to NPR on the weekend or in the car. On the weekend I'm usually somewhere to play golf and I'll listen on the way. I'm extremely fond of Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me. And On the Media. I love Car Talk.

I always have about nine books at the desk at the office and at the bed at home. Three of the really good books I've read in the last month would be Tocqueville's Discovery of America by Leo Damrosch. What he's done is translate the notes de Tocqueville kept while in the States, from which he wrote Democracy in America. Then there's Making Haste From Babylon by Nick Bunker, about the Pilgrims arriving at Plymouth to set up a venture-capital deal in beaver pelts. The last would be The War That Killed Achilles by Caroline Alexander. I don't read current novels as much as I should.

At the end of the day, I read for pleasure. There are certain authors I like to read and reread. Especially Twain. The Library of America series has a collection of Twain's miscellaneous writings--invectives, journalism, burlesques. To my mind he's the greatest of the American writers. I'll go back and read Edith Wharton, the House of Mirth. I reread Patrick O'Brian and Alan Furst. I reread Rameau's Nephew by Diderot, a book by Philip Guedalla called The Hundred Years, Lytton Strachey's Elizabeth and Essex. At the moment, I'm rereading Balzac's Lost Illusions. To me it concurs with what I know about the sorrows of Grub Street in Manhattan, in terms of publishing and journalism.

I read for the pleasure of the sentence structure, or the use of language, or the control of metaphor, or for a sense of humor. Or the civilizing voice that is not particularly surprised or shocked by the world's wickedness. If I come across a writer who's obsessed with himself, I'm not usually interested

I know I'm not like a lot of your other Media Diets. I do read for the fun of it, thank God.

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