Down the Rabbit Hole: Travel throughout Time with Lapham’s Quarterly

“Traveling is like flirting with life. It’s like saying, ‘I would stay here and love you, but I have to go; this is my station.'” — Lisa St. Aubin de Terán, 1989

This quote, from novelist and adventurer (adventure like marrying a Venezuelan aristocrat she met on the street when she was 16, not adventure like trying to kill herself on Kilimanjaro) Lisa St. Aubin de Terán, is just one tiny tidbit of a reason you need to go out right now and buy a copy of Lapham Quarterly’s Summer 2009 Travel Issue.

Sure, you could go to the above link and read some of the writing of travel, on travel, about travel, on the website, but this issue is nothing like the travel magazines we read monthly, pick up, put down, stack under other magazines, spill coffee on, and recycle. This literary journal is one that every traveler and reader should have in their library. You want to read Paul Theroux and Pico Iyer? They’re there. What about Lewis & Clark, Ovid, Florence Nightingale, Marco Polo, Miguel de Cervantes, Herodotus, Lewis Carroll, … ? And more. Many, many more. Thick, beautiful pages — 221 of them — of travel literature from, say, 1200 B.C. to the present day, with an introduction by editor Lewis Lapham about the evolution of the European Grand Tour and what it means to travel.

Lapham’s Quarterly was launched just last year by Lewis Lapham, who was for decades Editor-in-Chief of Harper’s, and is still Editor Emeritus of that magazine. The Quarterly focuses on one of Lapham’s long-time passions: history. That is, viewing current and timeless issues through the lens of history and voices throughout time. Voted by Utne Reader as the Best New Publication of 2009, it has been called “whimsical,” “necessary,” “a godsend,” and “beautiful madness.”

This is not a magazine of new ideas; it’s a magazine designed to show, through humor, thoughtful details, and excellent prose and poetry, that there are no new ideas, only new ways of looking at them and new voices to articulate them. I loved, for example, the excerpt from “The Ascent of Mount Ventoux,” by Petrarch, in which he sees an analogy behind his insistence on meandering around valleys looking for an easier path, rather than ascending directly up the path straight and clear in front of him — which is, he realized, how he approaches his life. I can name a number of modern writers who present this traveling analogy as new and innovative, but Petrarch was writing in 1336.

That sort of depth and sense of history is why you need to buy this journal, and why you need to keep it. Our daily activities on Twitter and Facebook and hyperactively looking for the next wave of something to do is like living as stones constantly skipping lightly over the surface of the water — a fun, brisk, racing life. But at some point the stone falls down. It stops flying through the air. Don’t you want to see where it goes? This is the difference between living horizontally and living vertically, and this applies to travel and travel writing as well as any other aspect of living with passion. You need both in your life, the horizontal and the vertical, if you want your experiences to be as full as possible — you need this travel compendium.

Lapham’s Quarterly sidestepped the issue of travelers versus tourists by filing its massive collection of Voices through Time by Departures, In Transit, Destinations, and Returns, with a few further comments by writers such as Simon Winchester and the poet Billy Collins. And don’t those categories pretty thoroughly cover how most of us think about travel? Any other subject we can think of — encounters, food, conversations, failures — can be classified as one of those other concepts.

I loved dropping down the rabbit hole with Alice in this book, being reminded that she, too, was traveling somewhere, and following the excerpt with one from Joseph Conrad about the Congo and Marilynne Robinson (one of my favorite modern novelists, by the way) about Kansas. A story placed in Basra in 800 from The Thousand and One Nights (sometimes known as Arabian Nights) gives a whole new perspective on today’s Middle East, and there is no better way to end this tome than with Pico Iyer’s “Nowhere Need be Foreign,” in which he states the following: “It has been my prejudice and my hope ever since I began reading and traveling that what we need now is a travel writing that reflects a larger world and a much more complex order … Writing about travel becomes a matter of writing about confusion and mixed identity and the snares of cultural transformation.”

Intelligent, rich, and very quirky, there is no better place to start than with the depth and breadth of Lapham’s Quarterly Summer 2009 (and beyond): Travel.

“The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.” St. Augustine, circa 390 A.D.


  1. Boon July 8, 2009
  2. Antonia Malchik July 8, 2009
  3. mandino July 8, 2009
  4. Antonia Malchik July 9, 2009
  5. mandino July 9, 2009

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