Books by Lewis H. Lapham

Released: June 21, 2004

"Literate, sophisticated, and plenty ticked-off: vintage Lapham, and a ringing endorsement of First Amendment freedoms."
The noted contrarian takes on a presidency that seems devoted to taking the path of least resistance. Read full book review >
THE END OF THE WORLD by Lewis H. Lapham
Released: Dec. 22, 1998

The end of the world, this varied and often vivid anthology reminds us, has always been largely a matter of personal interpretation. If one's society seems to be collapsing, this must inevitably mean that the larger world is tottering, too. Lapham, the editor-in-chief of Harper's magazine, has assembled brief reports from a variety of disasters (ranging from the biblical account of the destruction of Sodom up to the collapse of the Soviet empire) that offer firsthand impressions of the impact of natural and man-made disasters on society. Drawing from histories, letters, memoirs, and period reports, Lapham's anthology reminds us how important a role disaster has had in circumscribing a civilization's influence (from Rome to Russia). It also offers an often moving record of the way in which humans have struggled to deal with everything from invasions to the Holocaust. Lapham's decision to focus on gifted writers (a roster that includes Thucydides, Boccaccio, John Donne, Voltaire, the Shelleys, Karl Marx, Henry Adams, Sigmund Freud, and Primo Levi) makes for a particularly readable collection, though one somewhat lacking in a feel for the experience of ordinary humans in a time of woe. Nonetheless, an intriguing and stimulating collection. Read full book review >
Released: Oct. 31, 1995

Harper's editor Lapham (The Wish for Kings, 1993, etc.) proves why his magazine won the 1995 National Magazine Award for Essays and Criticism. The 56 essays in this anthology, written for Harper's from January 1990 to March 1995, have in common Lapham's brilliance, acerbic wit, and disdain for all those who ``defend the sanctity of myth against the heresy of fact.'' More fundamentally, these commentaries on America are linked by Lapham's belief that ``democracy allies itself with change and proceeds on the assumption that nobody knows enough and that nothing is final.'' According to this principle, conflict is an important aspect of political life; a necessary and useful corrective to oppression and stagnation. Lapham sees grave threats to the nation from those who believe that freedom of speech and thought are destructive influences, rather than the very basis for growth and improvement in America. He criticizes the political correctness movements of the left and the right, and the aversion among politicians to take on problems because ``solutions imply change, and change is unacceptable because change translates into resentment, and resentment loses votes.'' The Republican right, he contends, stifles debate by its oversimplification of America's problems, which it attempts to blame on the poor and an imagined ``liberal establishment.'' And the American people are criticized for believing politicians who promote the republic as they would a resort hotel, treating the electorate not as responsible citizens but as guests. American voters, Lapham rails, would rather be coddled than act. Lapham believes that ``a raucous assembly of citizens unafraid to speak their minds'' prods Americans to think creatively about the future. This raucous assembly of one proves the point. Read full book review >
Released: June 1, 1993

The editor of Harper's and author of Imperial Masquerade (1990), etc., reaches the top of his form in five distinguished essays arguing that too few Americans any longer care or know enough to protect and nurture democratic institutions. ``[The] habits of liberty have fallen into disuse,'' writes Lapham, ``and the promise of democracy no longer inspires or exalts a majority of the people lucky enough to have been born under its star.'' America has devolved into an oligarchy, the argument begins—an argument buttressed with facts, figures, and observations—and the nation's collective frame of mind has changed as well over the past 30 years from that of ``democrat'' to that of ``courtier'': from a citizenry that understands government to be what the governed make of it to a citizenry that passively and obsequiously seeks favors and dispensations from the high and unresponsive powers that be. A numbing and closing down of democratic energies and freedoms of discourse is one result of such a situation, since ``[very] seldom does anybody hazard a guess or an opinion that might harm his or her chance of advancement,'' so that, even in the greatest universities, ``the range of acceptable opinion bears comparison with the wingspan of a bumblebee.'' Government itself (``a mock democracy'') is excoriated no less than is the ``chronic servility'' of American journalism in performing its ``duties as court chamberlain and archflatterer.'' And both are part of a nation trapped by a mass media whose vocabulary ``doesn't lend itself to the discussion of complicated political issues, much less to moral ambiguity or moments of doubt.'' The appeal of a candidate like Ross Perot was really the appeal ``of benevolent despotism,'' and Lapham's warning that ``the wish for kings is the fear of freedom'' takes on special power alongside his reminder that ``liberty withers and decays unless it's put to use.'' Eloquent, piercingly intelligent essays crying out against America's Orwellian future. Read full book review >