Means of Communication

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While passing through New York’s Grand Central, I spotted the Spring, 2012 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly. It is a literary journal edited by Lewis Lapham. Four times a year they collect fiction, nonfiction, poems, and essays from over four thousand years of history, all gathered around a single theme. And this issue’s theme is “Means of Communication”.

I was struck by the incredible content and complementary visuals. There are close to 100 different pieces of content ranging from one-line quotes to longer essays. In addition there are illustrations of famous paintings, infographics, charts, and photos all supporting the issue’s theme. Among them are the original concept layout for the “I Love New York” campaign, images from an IBM voice recognition study, and historic fonts.

The content is divided into sections covering Broadcast, Written, and Spoken. The contributors are a diverse lot including: James Madison, Li Si, H.G. Wells, Bertolt Brecht, Oliver Sachs, Plato, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Eusebius, Arthur Koestler, Edith Wharton, Walt Whitman, Toni Morrison, and Simon Winchester. There is also a section on Tweets sent from Cairo in 2011.

Mr. Lapham’s preamble called “Word Order” challenges current trends in communications, he writes, “The making of countless connections in the course of a morning’s Googling, an afternoon’s shopping, and evening’s tweeting constitutes the guarantee of being in the know.” Here he intones the Swiss playwright Max Frisch’s phrase, “the knack of so arranging the world we don’t have to experience it.” I felt he was singling me out with my own superficial knowledge-attaining rituals I now conduct online.

The amazing quotes sprinkled throughout the pages are alone worth the cover price. Some of these included:

  • “Do not the most moving moments of our lives find us all without words?” Marcel Marceau
  • “No one gossips about other people’s secret virtues.” Bertrand Russell
  • “Translation is at best an echo.” George Borrow

The standout content pieces for me were John Cheever’s short story, “The Enormous Radio,” an outtake from prescient communications theorist Marshall McLuhan’s “Understanding Media,” and an engrossing exchange of letters between poet Marianne Moore and The Ford Motor Company concerning the naming of a new car (absolutely hilarious).

The issue acts as both a fascinating lament and a celebration of human communications.

Jeff Swystun DDB Worldwide Chief Communications Officer

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