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 of them!” The Atlantic would go on to publish Dickinson’s poems; perhaps more important, 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 The Atlantic, she wrote to him, beginning a decades-long correspondence. Higginson would, eventually, help put together the first collection of her poetry. Looking back, I’m grateful for that early, elated meeting of reader and reading material. This, then, is a book!
Many of us have had that moment ourselves, that realization of a world existing—quietly, almost secretly—within a collection of pages. Reading about books can have a similarly revelatory effect. To read an essay about a writer’s work is to enter an intimate, three-person relationship among 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.
That quality of literature—and the criticism that helps make sense of it—is a large part of why we’re excited to be expanding books coverage at The Atlantic. Since its founding in 1857, this magazine “of Literature, Art, and Politics” has been home to great writing about the momentous books and literary debates of the day. It has championed generations of essayists and novelists and poets (though, in a huge oversight, it didn’t publish Dickinson until after her death). And it has run stories by James Baldwin, Kurt Vonnegut, Louise Erdrich, Alice Munro, and Lauren Groff, to name just a few. Building on this strong base, we’ll be bringing you more of what we’ve always done, as well as some new offerings. Expect more book reviews and essays—plus provocative arguments, reported stories, profiles, original fiction and poetry, and, of course, recommendations for your every reading need.
Why now? At first blush, books might not seem very apt at keeping up with the many challenges of our moment. But paradoxically, we might find ourselves turning more and more to books because they demand so much of our attention. Literature has a unique quality of slowing us down even as it widens our horizons. That makes it a particularly fantastic vessel for our era of distraction. Books are also a vehicle for the free expression of ideas, a value that this institution shares and that is under assault culturally and politically. One of the roles of The Atlantic, as our editor at large Cullen Murphy once said, is an obligation to tell “the big story that lurks, untold, behind the smaller ones that do get told.” Books serve this role too.
The literary landscape today is full of such undertakings. Novelists are grappling, creatively, with the climate crisis, alleged predatory behavior, the future of work. Poets are taking on crucial questions of identity. Anthropologists are rethinking our assumptions about human social history, writ large. Earlier texts, too, when revisited, can offer historical context that resounds sharply decades later. Reading can show us, anew, the forces that shape our institutions, our beliefs, and our sense of self. It can expand the way we look at the world around us. At The Atlantic, our aim has been, and will be, to introduce readers to such books, old and new, and to engage with the ideas in them critically and inquisitively.
Reading can also, as Dickinson discovered, incite almost inordinate forms of joy. Many of my favorite books (and, I’d wager, many of yours) have no utilitarian use: They might, instead, feature invented languages that lay bare the audacity of the writer’s mind, or introduce sui generis characters who seem cut from whole cloth—and are simply magical in their charm or absurdity. They might stop us short 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 across the country, reading and writing about literature—and in the process, perhaps better understanding ourselves, and others—become ever more important. I hope you’ll join us in that endeavor.