2021 in Review on Roundtable

The sixteen most read essays and excerpts on Lapham’s Quarterly’s website this year.

By Lapham’s Quarterly

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Aspects of Nature: The Woods, Winter, by Henri Rivière, nineteenth century. The Cleveland Museum of Art, gift of John Bonebrake.

Here are the essays published on the Lapham’s Quarterly website in 2021 that our readers spent the most time with.

Caroline Wazer, “It’s Time for Some Game Theory

Does Assassin’s Creed actually have an impact on how young people understand history? One illuminating attempt to answer this question appeared in the journal Theory and Research in Social Education in 2019. Lisa Gilbert, a lecturer at Washington University in St. Louis, conducted qualitative interviews in which she asked fourteen teenage boys who had played at least one Assassin’s Creed game to explain how, if at all, the series had influenced their understanding of history. Most of the boys Gilbert interviewed reported having a low or moderate preexisting interest in history. Many said that they didn’t think the game had measurably influenced their social studies grades or even taught them historical information, which they largely equated with the rote memorization of dates and names. They also seemed to understand quite well that AC is a work of fiction, not fact. Gilbert describes one hesitating when asked to categorize ACIII characters as “historical” or “fictional”—the game’s George Washington, he made sure she knew he understood, was both at once.

Benjamin Breen, “Our Strange Addiction

The 1610s were a key decade in tobacco’s transformation into a new global obsession. Before long, the gift (or curse) of smoking had given rise to one of the world’s most lucrative industries, emerged as a key driver of the Atlantic slave trade, and initiated a global bad habit that humanity still hasn’t kicked more than four hundred years later. But smoking was about more than just tobacco pipes in the early modern period; the enormous pipe god of Francis Bacon’s dance performance was part of a more complicated, and far stranger, panorama of smoking technologies and practices. The story of smoking in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is capacious enough to include the distillation apparatus of the alchemist, the water pipe of the cannabis smoker, and even medicinal smoke enemas.

Kim Beil, “Snap Judgment

Trick photography emerged as a popular practice in the 1890s following the advent of small, handheld cameras, such as the Kodak. Previously, photography had been the domain of scientists or professionals who could afford the expensive equipment and dedicate time to the mastery of darkroom work. As the cost of cameras decreased and the photo-finishing industry was born, the medium became more accessible to amateurs. A Kodak user could simply send the camera with its finished roll of film back to the manufacturer. The pictures were developed and printed, then returned to the photographer along with the camera, now reloaded with a fresh roll of film. As the company’s advertising slogan put it: “You push the button, we do the rest.”

Karl Steel, “The Adapted Words of Memmie Le Blanc

James Burnett, Lord Monboddo, rich, strange, and Scottish, died at eighty-four in 1799. He was known for exposing himself: he exercised naked before the open windows of his estate and eschewed travel by carriage, insisting instead on riding his horse Alburac through the damp gray of every Scottish season. Like many other men of his ilk and era—Rousseau, Condillac, Mandeville—he speculated at length about language’s origins among our primeval ancestors. He maintained, incorrectly but not unlaudably, that fully articulate speech first appeared in the Black civilization of ancient Egypt; that certain Native American languages were mutually intelligible with Gaelic; and, most notoriously, that orangutans were humans, though just too lazy to learn to speak. For Rousseau orangutans’ humanity was only a hypothesis, but Monboddo asserted it as fact so insistently that the universal wit Samuel Johnson likened him to a man with a tail, but without the shame to try to hide it.

Matthew Redmond, “Edgar Allan Poe Needs a Friend

Type “Edgar Allan Poe” into your preferred image search engine, brace for impact, and press Enter. Instantly you hit a wall of chalk-white faces, each conveying a mixture of despair, dyspepsia, grief, wonderment, and wounded pride. Some are actual daguerreotypes, while the rest are fan art or movie stills inspired by those antique likenesses. In every case, one has the distinct feeling that misery could not ask for better company. This is Poe. Now try searching “Poe Osgood portrait” instead. What comes up this time is a face totally different from those in the previous set. It can’t be the same person. There is color in his cheeks and light in his eyes, and his brow looks quite unburdened. The expression registers as neither menacing nor miserable, but magnanimous. This too is Poe.

Ed Simon, “Walking Shadows

In considering Shakespeare’s first folio, thirty-six plays printed in 1623, seven years after his death, and edited by actors John Heminges and Henry Condell, it can be easy for literary scholars such as myself to slide into thinking about these works as somehow existing beyond the grubby world of the actual theater. And yet as literary scholar Andrew Gurr reminds us in Playgoing in Shakespeares London, Shakespeare wrote “for a highly specific stage…not for any theater in the abstract nor for the printed page.” This was true of not just Shakespeare but also Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe, and their contemporaries. Shakespeare didn’t have in mind an arid graduate seminar, but rather wrote for the Globe Theatre in the warm dwindling sunlight—the length of acts had to be timed to end before it became too dark. The background noise of theatergoers loudly munching on concessions would require consideration as well. Scenes would need to be scheduled so that Blackfriars’ stagehands could cut candlewicks, lest smoke sting the eyes of performers. So prevalent is the contention that Shakespeare was “not of an age, but for all time,” as Jonson wrote, that we can forget how he was very much of his own age, one that he shared with the actors who performed his words.

Dylan Byron, “No Thanks to the Academy

Officially ungoverned, over several centuries English has gone from being one language of a modest European archipelago to the single most commonly spoken language in the world, with 1.3 billion speakers by one count. But it would be a mistake to suppose that English’s astonishing dissemination followed from purely linguistic properties. There can be no question that the near-universal expansion of the Anglosphere was a particularly brutal effect of colonial power: a product of force, not of science; a technique of control, not of liberty. While English pens were praising their freedom from the confining authority of an English Academy, English arms were imposing their language on unwilling populations in a cultural genocide that reverberates through these very sentences, written on a continent where they should never have been spoken. The accomplishments of English science may have brought a spirit of openness and free development to the English language, but its technologies rained only death and obliteration on those who sought to speak otherwise. In this way, the absence of an English Academy approaches one of the most violent contradictions at the center of the English language itself: free for some, compelled for others.

Carly Silver, “Do You Want to Build an Icehouse?

Treasure troves of correspondence, written in cuneiform script on clay tablets, reveal how ancient kings constructed icehouses specifically designed for the purpose of cooling beverages or food—the ultimate sign of privilege. Archaeologists noticed large decreases in rainfall and increased aridity across Mesopotamia in the late third millennium bc and into the early second. If these events survived in cultural memory, perhaps it’s not surprising that the use of ice, especially icehouses, became a point of pride for royals.


Lapham’s Quarterly also published many excerpts from recently published works of history. Here are the ones that found the most readers.

Judith M. Bennett, “Those Who Work,” from A Medieval Life: Cecilia Penifader and the World of English Peasants Before the Plague (University of Pennsylvania Press)

Why should we care about peasants? Historians understand that history is richer when seen from the margins. By looking at medieval peasants, we can see both their rural world and the broader medieval society of which they were a critical part. We stand on the muddy margins with peasants and, looking upward and inward, we can better understand not only poor peasants but also prosperous churchmen, knights, and merchants, all of whom relied on peasant labor.

Stefana Sabin, “The Gradual Discovery of Glasses,” from In the Blink of an Eye: A Cultural History of Spectacles (Reaktion Books)

As with many everyday objects, it is difficult to determine who invented glasses, or where and when they were first used. In fact, they were not really “invented” in the sense of being a great discovery, a unique inspiration that provided a solution to a hitherto unanswered problem. It was more of a gradual process that went hand in hand with other scientific and technical discoveries—accompanied by persistent speculation and questions. In prehistoric times the Inuit apparently used a sort of protective eyewear made of walrus ivory against snow blindness. And among the unanswered questions from those early times is the matter of Nero’s emerald. Pliny the Elder wrote in his c. 77 Natural History that Emperor Nero held an emerald to his eye to observe gladiator contests: “The princeps Nero viewed the combats of the gladiators in a smaragdus.” Pliny used the term smaragdus for a variety of green minerals and made several observations about the soothing effects of green gemstones.

Emily K. Abel, “Weary of Work,” from Sick and Tired: An Intimate History of Fatigue (University of North Carolina Press)

Most discussions of fatigue at the turn of the twentieth century begin with neurasthenia (from a Greek term meaning nervous exhaustion), the diagnosis popularized by neurologist George M. Beard in 1869. Like other physicians at the time, Beard viewed the body as a machine powered by energy produced by the nerves. The depletion of that energy resulted in the condition he called neurasthenia. Although sufferers reported an array of vague symptoms, including irritability, weight loss, anxiety, depression, insomnia, and impotence, fatigue was the most important and rest a commonly prescribed remedy. We tend to assume we live in a time of unprecedented and overwhelming social and technological change. In the late nineteenth century, similar anxieties were provoked by the advent of telephones, telegraphs, trains, and what contemporaries viewed as the accelerating pace of life in rapidly growing cities and the tendency toward busyness and overwork.

Claire Cock-Starkey, “A Star Is Born,” from Hyphens & Hashtags*: *The Stories Behind the Symbols on Our Keyboard (Bodleian Library Publishing)

Sumerian pictographic writing includes a sign for “star” that looks like a modern asterisk. These early writings from five thousand years ago are the first known depiction of an asterisk; however, it seems unlikely that these pictograms are the forerunner of the symbol we use today. Palaeographers know that Aristarchus of Samothrace (220–143 bc) used an asterisk symbol when editing Homer in the second century bc, because later scholars wrote about him doing so. Physical examples of Aristarchus’ asterisks have not survived, so we cannot know their physical shape, but as the word asterisk derives from the Greek asteriskos, meaning “little star,” an assumption has been made that they resembled a small star. Aristarchus used the symbols to mark places in Homer’s text that he was copying where he thought passages were from another source. By the third century Origen of Alexandria had adopted the asterisk when compiling the Hexapla—a Greek translation of the Jewish scriptures, the Septuagint. Origen used the asterisk to demarcate texts that he had added to the Septuagint from the original Hebrew. Both these early uses of the asterisk are as an editing tool, to notify the reader that the passage they are reading should be read with caution.

Samantha Rose Hill, “Not Belonging to the World,” from Hannah Arendt (Reaktion Books)

Arendt received an invitation to give the Christian Gauss seminars on “Criticism” at Princeton University in autumn 1953, making her the first woman to do so. The faculty and students were delighted to have a female professor for a change, but she was annoyed that she was treated as the “token woman,” as she expressed to her friend the Zionist organizer Kurt Blumenfeld: “At the closing ceremony, and ever so slightly tipsy, I enlightened these dignified gentlemen about what an exception Jew is, and tried to make clear to them that I have necessarily found myself here an exception woman.” Arendt had no interest in being the “exception woman,” just as she had no interest in being the “exception Jew.” When Princeton University offered her the rank of full professor a few years later in 1959, she threatened to decline because the New York Times stressed the fact that she would be the “first woman.” Arendt wanted to be acknowledged for her thinking, not for character traits that were mere facts of her existence, and she held firm on this line over the course of her career. When she was interviewed about her appointment, she told an interviewer, “I am not disturbed at all about being a woman professor, because I am quite used to being a woman.”

Konrad Schmid and Jens Schröter, “Becoming a Religion of the Book,” from The Making of the Bible: From the First Fragments to Sacred Scripture (Harvard University Press)

The oldest scriptures that eventually became the Bible were created within an environment where no appreciable religious function was assigned to texts. The stories, proverbs, songs, and prayers dating from the ninth and eighth centuries bc that researchers have managed to reconstruct from the Bible are examples of literature rather than holy scripture. They evolved into scripture through a lengthy process.

Daniel Ogden, “Men Becoming Wolves,” from The Werewolf in the Ancient World (Oxford University Press)

There is in fact quite a lot of ancient evidence for the subject of werewolves, but, it must be conceded, at first glance the ancient world has bequeathed us only one really good, corking story about them, and Petronius supplies it in the “Cena Trimalchionis” section of his comic Latin novel of circa 66, the Satyricon.

Michael Rawson, “A Utopia of Useful Things,” from The Nature of Tomorrow: A History of the Environmental Future (Yale University Press)

In the nineteenth century, machines would become so central to the imagined future that no vision of tomorrow was credible without them. (The catalyst for this transformation was the Industrial Revolution.) The author Jane Webb displayed a keen appreciation for that fact in a popular work of fiction that she published in 1827. Her story, set in twenty-second-century Egypt, described the Nile valley as a place where “steamboats glided down the canals, and furnaces raised their smoky heads amidst groves of palm trees; whilst iron railways intersected orange groves, and plantations of dates and pomegranates might be seen bordering excavations intended for coal pits.” In Webb’s future Egypt, as in so many other visions of tomorrow produced in the first half of the nineteenth century, machines provided the muscle for developing the natural environment at a fantastic pace and on a global scale.