When Emily Dickinson encountered her first real book as a child, she experienced a moment of pure, joyful recognition. “This, then, is a book!” she exclaimed. “And there are more!” Atlantic would continue to publish Dickinson’s poems; perhaps more importantly, it introduced her to a lifelong mentor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson. After Dickinson read his article “Letter to a Young Contributor” in the April 1862 issue of Atlantic, she wrote to him, beginning a correspondence of several decades. Higginson would eventually help put together the first collection of his poetry. Looking back, I am grateful for this early and elated reunion of reader and reading material. This, then, is a book!
Many of us have had this moment ourselves, this realization of a world existing – quietly, almost secretly – in a collection of pages. Reading in regards to books can have a similar revealing effect. To read an essay on the work of a writer is to enter into an intimate three-way relationship between critic, author and reader. It is a space of communion in which the book at hand becomes a shared object worthy of sustained and deep attention.
This quality of literature – and the reviews that help make sense of it – is a big part of why we’re thrilled to extend book coverage to Atlantic. Since its founding in 1857, this “literature, art and politics” magazine has been home to great writing on the important books and literary debates of the time. He championed generations of essayists, novelists and poets (although, in a huge oversight, he did not publish Dickinson until after his death). And he’s published stories by James Baldwin, Kurt Vonnegut, Louise Erdrich, Alice Munro and Lauren Groff, to name a few. Building on this solid foundation, we’ll bring you more of what we’ve always done, as well as new offerings. Expect more book and essay reviews, plus provocative arguments, reported stories, profiles, original fiction and poetry, and, of course, recommendations for all your reading needs. .
Why now? At first glance, the books might not seem very adept at keeping up with the many challenges of our times. But paradoxically, we could increasingly turn to books because they demand so much of our attention. Literature has the particularity of slowing us down even as it broadens our horizons. This makes it an especially fantastic ship for our age of distraction. The book is also a vehicle for the free expression of ideas, a value shared by this institution and which is culturally and politically attacked. One of the roles of Atlantic, as our editor Cullen Murphy once said, is an obligation to tell “the big story that lies, untold, behind the smaller ones that are told.” Books also fulfill this role.
Today’s literary landscape is replete with such ventures. Novelists grapple, creatively, with the climate crisis, alleged predatory behavior, the future of work. The poets tackle crucial questions of identity. Anthropologists are rethinking our assumptions about human social history, writ large. Earlier texts, when revisited, can also provide historical context that resonates powerfully decades later. Reading can show us, again, the forces that shape our institutions, our beliefs, and our sense of self. It can broaden the way we see the world around us. To Atlanticour aim has been and will be to introduce readers to these books, old and new, and to approach the ideas they contain in a critical and curious way.
Reading can also, as Dickinson discovered, elicit almost inordinate forms of joy. Many of my favorite books (and, I’d wager, many of yours) serve no utilitarian purpose: they might instead feature invented languages that lay bare the audacity of the writer’s mind, or introducing sui generis characters who seem cut from any cloth – and are simply magical in their charm or absurdity. They could stop us dead to admire the clarity of a single sentence. And they remind us, in ways both big and small, of what makes us human. At a time when books are under threat nationwide, reading and writing about literature – and in the process, perhaps a better understanding of ourselves and others – is becoming ever more important. I hope you will join us in this endeavor.