Book People | December 2008 | Nicholas Basbanes

New York Society Library

It's days like these that I think how senseless the loss last year of the great American writer, David Halberstam, killed in a terrible automobile accident in Northern California. I often wonder what he'd have to say about so many different things that are going on in the world--the recent election, the constant misuse of his phrase "the best and the brightest" for Barack Obama's cabinet choices (see Frank Rich's piece in the New York Times), the "spygate" brouhaha last year involving Coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots, subject of a Halberstam biography, to name just a few.

But what has sparked my thoughts today of the deft pen of Halberstam is another piece that ran in the Times, and brought to my attention this morning by my wife Connie (who had the newspaper first.) It's about the venerable New York Society Library at 53 East 79th Street in Manhattan, a 254-year-old subscription library that has been loaning books out over the generations to such luminaries as George Washington, Herman Melville, Willa Cather, Truman Capote, Barbara Tuchman, and David Mamet. As nice as today's piece is, I thought immediately of a truly superb appreciation Halberstam had written about the institution a number of years ago, in this instance from the perspective of a grateful reader who often went there for repose and refuge as much as for reading.

Through the magic of Google, I found the 1997 essay quite quickly, on the web page of the society itself, in fact. Like the institution Halberstam celebrated, the article has lost none of its magic with the passage of eleven years, and I recommend it as a heartfelt profile of a great book place. You can read it here: