About Us

James Atlas

Writer, editor

It is a rainy afternoon in spring, and I'm sitting at a desk in the plush reading room where I have spent some of the most tranquil and productive days of my life. Before me is a fragile book, its thin ribbon untied, the leather spine cracked, the brittle pages yellow with age. The book is just over two hundred years old: 1798. The S in its elegant font is written as an F. The book is a slender biography, Robert Southey's Life of Oliver Cromwell, and amazingly, it was in the rare books division of The New York Society Library. Or perhaps not amazingly: I've virtually never looked for a book in the Library that it didn't possess. For hours I pore over this treasure, turning the delicate pages with care; I am trusted here, and so I treat with care the books it delivers into my hands. From original works by Mary Wollstonecraft to 18th-century diatribes against Dr. Johnson's brief biography of Milton, from the works of A. J. Froude to the works of the social philosopher Leo Strauss, readily obtained for a piece written on deadline, I know that the wooden card catalogue—so evocative, so reminiscent of the card catalogue in the Evanston, Illinois, library where I discovered my love of books—will invariably yield up the book I'm looking for, no matter how obscure.

For me, the Library, with its silent, well-appointed rooms (my favorite is the Whitridge Room on the third floor), its study room on the top floor, has been a second home for many years. I wrote a good part of my biography of Saul Bellow in one of the austere private rooms available; I have written articles and essays on my laptop at one of the long tables in the large study room. I have whiled away afternoons, oblivious to the sirens and clamor of traffic outside the tall windows, reading books I didn't intend to read until I serendipitously stumbled upon them in the classic crowded stacks. To walk in the door and have Mr. Piel call out from his desk that he's read something of mine in a journal, or that he's acquired for the Library's collection a book I published, is to feel welcome in a rare way in this cold, self-important city. Mr. Piel's desk is his domain, the perch from which he surveys his kingdom of books. I'm glad to be one of his subjects.