"We try to elicit enthusiasms," Atlas explains. "I sent out these missives to writers I admire, sometimes into the Internet ether and sometimes by actual post. I sent some letters to Bill Bryson and sort of forgot about it until a few months later I got this letter from him. There's one word, followed by a question mark: 'Shakespeare?' "
Others persuaded have been Hitchens, for books on Thomas Paine and Jefferson, and playwright David Mamet, who completed a work on anti-Semitism and Jewish self-hatred for NextBook's "Jewish Encounters" series. Contributors to the Times Books presidential series include former Sens. Gary Hart and George McGovern, and Dallek, author of best-selling biographies of presidents Kennedy and Nixon.