Paul Holdengräber

[Director, Live from the NYPL]

“In a way I’m asking from the public the most precious commodity that anybody has, which is time.”
Holdengräber’s seven-word autobiography:
“Mother always said: two ears, one mouth.”

When it comes to taste, it’s Paul Holdengräber’s job to be all over the map. With his New York Public Library program, LIVE from the NYPL, he’s created a venue where writers, artists, philosophers, and other luminaries are encouraged to think out loud—about literature, the death penalty, fame, erotic art, the brutality of boxing, psychoanalysis, the role of religion in America, you name it—in front of a live audience. One night he’s discussing the cultural renaissance of Vienna in 1900 with Eric Kandel; the next he’s eagerly learning about amyl nitrates from John Waters or mapping the origins of Def Jam Recordings with Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons. His goal, he says, is “to make the lions roar and shake the foundations of this massive institution.”

Since joining the library as the director of public events, in 2004, Holdengräber has shared the stage with such icons as Christopher Hitchens, Elizabeth Gilbert, Brian Eno, Patti Smith, Errol Morris, Werner Herzog, Zadie Smith, Jay-Z, Rebecca Mead, Bill Clinton, Al Sharpton, and Junot Díaz. When asked about his approach to speaking with people, he quotes Laurence Sterne, who argued that “digression is the sunshine of narrative.” In his public talks (and throughout our interview), Holdengräber repeatedly lays claim to the idea that people don’t make much sense, and his conversations often underscore that dichotomy by contrasting hard-nosed analysis with unscripted moments of spontaneity. In a sold-out show with Mike Tyson, for example, he had the former heavyweight champ go from extolling the virtues of inner peace to championing the brutality of the Frankish kings within a span of minutes. While discussing Pepin the Short, Tyson turned to the audience and whispered, with more than a hint of envy, “That guy knew how to kill.”

Before coming to New York, Holdengräber was the founder and director of the Institute for Art and Cultures at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In 2012 he kicked off The Paul Holdengräber Show on YouTube’s Intelligent Channel, a loose counterpart to the LIVE series. I met with Paul at the NYPL’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, on Forty-Second Street and Fifth Avenue, a handful of times over the past couple of years to talk about what it means to be a curator of public curiosity, the expanding role of libraries in the smartphone era, and why everyone’s priority should always be to “read, read, read, read, read.”

—Lane Koivu

I. Chopped Liver

THE BELIEVER: I went to your recent conversation with Werner Herzog, and you two spoke as if you’d known each other your entire lives.

PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: We’ve spoken many times, and each and every time it’s a wonderful occasion for me. It’s a great discovery, the way he fulfills everything I hope for in a conversation: to be surprised and taking on territory that is new. To provide what he believes culture is all about. You know, his definition of culture is incredible. He says: “Culture is a collective agitation of the mind.” And hopefully, in conversations such as the ones we have done, it gets people excited about thinking, wondering what it feels like to have ideas. Was that the first time you saw Werner Herzog?

BLVR: It was. And as we walked into Astor Hall, my friend nearly bumped into him. You were giving him a tour of the library.

PH: Yes, we took him around, but we did something very particular. With many of our guests, I take them to Special Collections. In the case of Werner, we took him to the manuscripts division, and he saw some late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century photography of death-row inmates. Underneath [the photographs] the curator had written “successful,” or “very successful,” in terms of execution. We have some extraordinary pictures of Werner looking over those photos with sheer and utter intensity.

I don’t consider the library a venue. It’s a storehouse of knowledge. People need to know that when they are in the Celeste Bartos Forum, it’s a place where above them is this amazing reading room and fifty-two million items in this library. Seven floors. One should be inspired and feel it.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Lane Koivu is a writer living in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, with his cat, Tuna.

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