© 2012 New York Society Library
People who are melodramatic about the decline of the physical book often see booklovers as having to retreat to redoubts, sanctuaries, like people of learning retiring to monasteries in late antiquity. Things may not be that drastic, but my personal Monte Cassino or Vivarium is the New York Society Library on East 79th St. It is a membership library, which means you have to pay a small amount a year to take out books (though not do simply come in and do research), but it more than worth it to me in terms of access to books and a comfortable atmosphere in which to read and work. The Society Library is also one of the great spaces in New York, a place to pause in the middle of a busy day and look out on the street or dip in for a few lines of a beloved classic before being on your way. Though not a comprehensive library on the level of that of a major university, a skilled researcher can get a great deal out of the collection, and they have real strengths in biography, fiction, art and architecture, and history, as well as resources, such as bound, printed copies of The Nation and The New Yorker from many years ago, that are very hard to find elsewhere. What I find most valuable about the Society Library is the sense it gives of books as a part of a civilization, as not just ingestible consumer items but artifacts that have a complex relationship to human pleasure and wisdom. In an era with fewer bookstores and fewer books in them, where university libraries often put books in storage in favor of opening espresso bars, the New York Society Library may well be the sort of redoubt we need.
—Nicholas Birns, The New School, New York, NY; Editorial Board member of Anthem Australian Humanities Research Series