Paul Holdengraber: The Afterlife of Conversation

Formerly in Wild River Review

by Kimberly Nagy

“We’re not a collection of books. We’re a congregation of ideas.”

Paul Holdengräber, Director and Founder of LIVE from the NYPL at The New York Public Library

Paul Holdengräber is the kind of intellectual who can pack the house. His curated conversations with writers, rappers, dancers, historians, film directors and rock-stars have attracted scores of hipsters and scholars to the New York Public Library, which is not surprising to anyone who knows Sorbonne/Princeton educated Holdengräber.

“People are hungry for culture,” says Holdengräber, settling into his small book-lined office behind a desk piled with papers, magazines and books.

With warmth and contagious enthusiasm, Holdengräber moves easily between subjects ranging from his birth in Houston and peripatetic youth in six different countries (United States, Mexico, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Belgium, and France) to his interview with obituary writer for the Economist, Ann Wroe, where half of the New York Times obit writers were in the audience – William Grimes and Bruce Weber, compared notes on how they ‘did the dead’ – to providing behind-the-scenes play by plays of YouTube clips showing his interviews with, among others, Harold Bloom, Patti Smith, Jay-Z, Rick Rubin, and Russell Simmons.

“Bringing people together in a room is essential, particularly in a public library with tens of millions of items (including the original Declaration of Independence, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s first edition of Frankenstein and A. A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh),” says Holdengräber. “We want to create a culture where these ideas are alive.”

Regularly covered by Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, W Magazine and Publisher’s Weekly, Holdengräber directs LIVE from the NYPL, a program he founded in 2004.  In 2007, W Magazine praised Holdengräber for transforming “the New York Public Library into an after-dark hot spot.” Recently, TIME OUT New York named the program as one of the “city’s coolest lectures.”

But Holdengräber balks at the word lecture. “When I think of the word, lecture, I imagine a place where the only possible way to stay awake is to watch people try not to fall asleep.” He drops his head mischievously, ”You know that movement in the head, there is this head bobbing motion….”

We all laugh, but it’s easy to see that Holdengräber is serious about words and settles on another: the finely orchestrated art of conversation.

But how do we keep these important ideas and conversations alive after the fact? Might the web serve as a tool, we suggest?

Holdengräber’s eyes brighten. “You couldn’t be closer to my heart in talking about the afterlife of the conversation. That’s exactly what I’m trying to do here.  And for the library to survive, we must find our way in the digital age.”

“I’ll give you an example,” he adds. “I was speaking on the phone yesterday with the film director Eroll Morris and I asked, ‘Have you ever read Carlo Ginzburg*, [known as the “father of microhistory”] who wrote an essay called Clues: Roots of a Scientific Librariana fantastic essay which talks about the role of the historian as detective?’ About eight hours later, one of my interns told me that Erroll Morris just Tweeted the fact that he was on an airplane and was reading Carlo Ginzburg. From there, the Tweets were re-Tweeted around the world. I said to myself, look at the result of our phone conversation, hundreds of messages and surely some of those readers will find the essay.  And I think, this is how works can now filter into the public view.”

Holdengräber‘s LIVE from NYPL has recently launched a series of public performances, readings and discussions showcasing the artists of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative. Artists and mentors included Brian Eno, Hans Magnus Eszenberger, Tracy K. Smith, Jessye Norman, Anish Kapoor, Gilberto Gil and many others.

In the words of Holdengräber, “All of these conversations are seeds. Who knows where they will find fertile soil?”

WRR: The New York Public Library’s partnership with Rolex and their Mentors and Protégé Arts Initiative program is a new venture. You have spoken about the importance of older writers, musicians and artists working with and mentoring younger ones. What attracted you and the library to this project?

Holdengräber: There is an African saying: When an old person dies a library disappears with them; and in Hebrew the word for tradition and transmission are the same. I see the mentorship program as re-establishing the idea, so important and at times lost, of craftsmanship. Forget the word ‘man’ embedded in the center of the word, craftsmanship is simply the passing on from hand-to-hand of a skill, of learning by example and hard work.

Sociologist Richard Sennett has interesting things to say about craftsmanship in his book by that name. It is about manipulation. But also, German intellectual Walter Benjamin does as well in his great essay, The Storyteller, where a storyteller leaves marks on his story the way a potter does on his pottery.  In other words, you see the fingers, the hands, the warmth, the dedication, devotion, passion.

Rolex and the Library also align well in these terms of excellence. To have a corporation the size of Rolex bringing this project in a professional way with the concept of mentors and mentees, you begin to think about the notion of passing on knowledge and passion, of the opportunity for both artists to create something fresh and new. For instance, Rolex has paired the great German poet and writer, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, who was born in 1929, with the American poet, Tracy K. Smith, who was born in 1972.  Enzensberger is a fantastic mind whose essays such as Mediocrity and Delusion have become classic work.  He is an icon in Europe and not so well known in the States, so it’s a chance to bring him to a wider audience as well.

By putting artists together from different cultures and viewpoints and giving them the financial freedom to create, Rolex is taking a wonderful risk.

WRR: Bringing together unlikely kindred spirits also defines your approach for the LIVE from NYPL series.

Holdengräber: A lot of my curatorial decisions are made on the basis of wanting to bring the best and the brightest to New York City in a certain way. For instance, putting together author and journalist Christopher Hitchens and Civil Rights Activist Al Sharpton.  I recently spoke with acclaimed potter Edmund de Waal about his superb memoir, The Hare with Amber Eyes, which traces the history of his paternal grandmother’s family through a piece of netsuke or a Japanese carving.

People ask me how I decide whom to interview.  It’s an informed subjectivity based on thirty-some odd years of reading and listening to what people have to say. It’s about sifting out those seeds.

WRR: Your family history has a literal connection to seeds and certainly speaks to your wide-ranging interests…

Holdengräber: Well, yes. My father and mother left Vienna in 1938 just before the Nazis annexed Austria. My Father was 21 and had been enrolled in medical school. My Mother was 14. They didn’t yet know each other, but settled in Haiti, which had a very small Jewish immigrant population who had escaped the Holocaust. 

In Haiti, my father became a farmer, cultivating vegetables that had never been grown on the island before. In 1939, he wrote a letter to the Burpee Seed Company in Pennsylvania, and said, “I’m a friendly enemy alien and I’ve just studied the land of Haiti. From what I learned in my medical studies in Vienna, I think I can cultivate vegetables such as carrots and cabbage here, even though the Minister of Culture tells me that this is impossible. I’m sending you some soil. Do you think vegetables can grow in this?”

Burpee wrote back said, “Dear Mr. Holdengräber – You are absolutely right. Here are 10,000 seeds, we wish you luck and hope that some of these vegetables will grow.”

At the end of 1939, a little bit after the break of the war, he started to plant.  Most of the seeds didn’t grow, but some did.  He became a farmer and distributed his wares, particularly to the Ministry of Culture, and showed them how to cultivate small plots of land. At the end of the week he would distribute what was left of his produce to the small Jewish community in Port-au-Prince.

That is how he met my grandmother; and consequently, my mother. My parents married in 1943 and now have been married for 817 months. They count every month, and so they’ve been married for a little over 68 years.

My Father, alas, never could go back to medical school. Although it is his one regret, he became a successful textile merchant who loved his work and retired last year at the age of 92.

However, about eleven years ago, he showed me the farms. And said to me, “Paul, this is my legacy.”

It was powerful.

WRR: Your father and mother left Haiti after four years and the family moved a lot.

Holdengräber: After my parents left Haiti, they went to Mexico City where my sister was born. I was born in Houston, Texas, as I’m sure you can tell by my accent. (He smiles.) So, I am American, my sister is Mexican, my parents are Austrian, my grandparents were Polish and Romanian. After Mexico, we lived in six countries in Europe, so I learned four languages simultaneously, French, German and Spanish, and some Italian later.

I learned Flemish as well when I studied law and philosophy in Belgium. I arrived at the Sorbonne in Paris to study philosophy in the heyday of French Deconstructionism with Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida – all of the people who became superstars in America. Roland Barthes was my teacher during the last year of his tenureship.

I went to graduate school in Princeton, in Comparative Literature, and wrote my dissertation on Walter Benjamin as a collector — the importance of collecting and being Jewish – and the relationship between them.  I taught at Princeton for many years before becoming a (jolly good) Fellow at the Getty Museum when it was in Santa Monica and went on to create a havoc of a kind similar to this at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) – the Institute for Arts and Culture. I brought all kinds of people together such as Tim Robbins interviewing Studs Terkel and hosted David Hockney and R.B. Kitaj.

WRR: Do you still write and teach?

Holdengräber:  I no longer teach and people ask me if I miss it.  The truth is, not at all. Here at the library, I’m doing it in a larger, open and more eclectic platform than one can at a university. I very much like the notion that I am doing something very similar in some ways, but completely different in other ways. That what I do here can reach people who might not have access to an exclusive education.

And writing, I’m asked often if I write, and someday I probably will develop the sitzfleish – the “sits flesh” to do it. For the moment, I’m more of a luftmensch, someone who has his feet firmly planted in mid-air.

So, I haven’t yet established the ability to sit down and write. What has happened is that people have transcribed the interviews I’ve done.  Michael Ondaatje, for instance, printed my interview with the filmmaker Werner Herzog in Brick Magazine. In this day and age, since the library has invested in bringing our interviews to the Internet, who know where anything ends up?

WRR: Your interview series doesn’t focus solely on writers.  It’s much broader. You are using your background and gifts to engage people in a wider conversation.

Holdengräber: Since I was referencing Werner Herzog before, he says that “culture is a collective agitation of the mind.” He told me that when a young filmmaker comes to me and says, “What should I do?” he looks at him and says, “Read, read, read.”

And I agree. It’s the only thing that matters.  Of course, reading happens in different forms. I’m a man of rapacious appetites, so I’m interested in nearly everything. I sometimes say we’ve done every kind of programming except self-help, and that’s not entirely true because we have had Miss Manners here and she is a force. To talk to her about manners is to learn about civility, which is society’s glue.

WRR: You’ve received great press for the series.

Holdengräber: Time Out Magazine just wrote an article that said that LIVE from NYPL is the city’s coolest lecture series. Vanity Fair is doing something on Librarian Chic. Time Out says that our lectures are: “Can’t Miss” events.  As I said earlier, I’m so sorry they used the word lecture. If I would have to pick a word, I prefer conversations – “Can’t Miss Conversations.”

They say we’re the Major League of lecture series, although I don’t really know anything about the Major League. But I was telling this the other day to our new President Anthony Marx, and he said to me, “This is great: Want me to try and get Shaq for LIVE from the NYPL?”

“Well, Major League, it’s sports.”  And he said, “We should do a sports series.”

So, this is how it happens.

WRR: For the younger generation, one of your most popular events was your conversation with the rapper Jay-Z.

Holdengräber:  I have two boys, ages six and nine, who are in public school (PS 58) in Brooklyn. They have a cool music teacher, Mr. Cedermark — the kind who has them singing, “New York State of Mind,” which is how my wife Barbara, who is a writer, and our two boys warmly welcomed me back to Brooklyn after one too many trips.

I started thinking about popular music and a few days later Jay-Z’s book Decoded arrived on my desk. It’s kind of a Talmudic analysis of his songs.  He highlights the text and augments it with footnotes. It’s an absolutely brilliant job and his editor and publisher, Julie Grau at Speigel and Grau, did a beautiful job producing it.

Grau couldn’t believe how excited I was to interview Jay-Z.  What on earth does the son of Viennese Jews who grew up listening to eleven versions of the Magic Flute know about hip-hop? Nothing! But, in many ways, I’m living my life in reverse. At 51 I’m discovering what people discover at 15.

When you move out of your comfort zone, you never know what will happen.  The Jay-Z event brought about the possibility of interviewing Def Jam co-founders Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons.  

Rick Rubin began our conversation by saying to 700 people, “I think for the first three minutes, we should meditate,” which we did. And when it was over, I said, “It felt like 20 minutes to me. How do you know it was 3 minutes?”  And he said, “Because it felt like 3 minutes.  Maybe you need it.”

WRR: You interviewed Patti Smith after she won the National Book Award for her memoir, Just Kids, and she surprised you.

Holdengräber:  I knew that Patti was steeped in literature in poetry and since her book had recently been published; I had prepared for a literary interview. However, the morning of our interview, Patti wrote to me and said, “I have a special connection to William Blake and Virginia Woolf, so I’m glad we’ll be talking about these things.  And P.S., Should I bring my guitar?”

I was in Brooklyn in our home and I was walking back and forth and saying, “Don’t respond immediately. You have to be cool.”  And I quickly called up my then-producer and said, “Please, What do we do? Do we have the equipment?”  And she said, “I’m going to get a stand for the guitar and the equipment.” And Patti came and sang five songs, including her homage to William Blake, My Blakean Year.”

WRR: You have a distinct style and a real art for drawing out the personality and depth of the people you interview. You spend days, sometimes weeks or longer, in preparation.  Yet your conversations appear to be entirely spontaneous.

Holdengräber: One tries to make the subject forget and yet remain on guard. It’s a mixture of both, trying to nurture what Socrates said, ‘To give birth to a thought and make people feel at ease; and yet make them anticipate the next question.’

One must keep the urgency alive.  I speak of the euphoria of ignorance, the notion of approaching things through non-knowledge of the subject and the skepticism of knowing too much. In some way one must carry the desire for openness and not be afraid of where it might lead you.

When I was 18 and went off to the university, my father said, “Don’t ever forget that the word university comes from the word universe.  The less interests you have, the less interesting you are. If you study law, you should also study philosophy. And don’t forget that across the street is a medical school. And in the medical school is an anatomy class. And you should go and learn about the human body.”

WRR: In many ways, you’ve created a sanctuary for interdisciplinary conversation and collaboration.

Holdengräber: For me, the program is reflective of certain moments in high culture in Vienna where people had serious discourse in the coffee houses and their ideas fed off one another. There was a culture of curiosity and I feel my role here at the New York Public Library is to be the Curator of Public Curiosity.

WRR: That can pose a curatorial challenge.

Holdengräber:  Yes. My challenge is that everything interests me, such as the example I shared earlier about exploring sports. I’m thinking, why not?  When I was in Los Angeles, I read about the basketball coach Phil Jackson, who had his players meditate and read books on Zen and Plato. Why not create a series with great sports figures?

But, I like to play with various genres and pair people together who will enhance one another’s work or bring out some aspect of the other. For instance, I worked with William Claxton, the photographer who created the iconic images of Chet Baker. Claxton said that photography is “jazz for the eyes.” So I said, let’s recreate that jazz. So we brought Claxton together with the drummer Billy Higgins and his musicians. While Higgins and his band played, Claxton took photos that immediately appeared on the screen.

For me the thought process that goes into bringing people together is an art form in itself.

To use the language of psychologist Adam Phillips, “We can’t tickle ourselves.  We need the gaze of the other. We need to be together.”

WRR: You are also gathering people in one of the world’s most beautiful public spaces.

Holdengräber:  You used the word public. I was talking with our new President Anthony Marx and told him that public is the most important word we have. This library is the Ellis Island of New York and has been the living room for immigrants from around the world. You walk up the steps at Fifth Avenue and pass between two lions – Patience and Fortitude – and into Astor Hall with its soaring ceiling. And suddenly you feel small. I think it’s a good moment.  And then you are brought up another level to the reading rooms, and there are the books.

You engage in serendipity. You take a look at what is juxtaposed against what. But that’s how you happen upon things, encounter things, how things fall into your lap and out of your pocket. I deeply believe that culture changes our contingencies and the books we read may have a transformative power we don’t even realize.

However, for this library to survive it needs to be entrepreneurial. And this has brought us into the age of the Internet. How do we present our work?  How do we link and hyperlink? To whom do we Tweet?

Even though I’m somewhat of a dinosaur, I recognize that online publications, such as yours, are working with new material in a different way. When President Marx asked me what I thought of eBooks, I said, ‘We now live under the sign of the ampersand. It’s not either- or-. In my neighborhood in Brooklyn, we have a fantastic bookstore called Greenlight. It’s become part of the fabric of our family’s life. Yet, I know that the reading experience will be different for my boys than it was for me. So, I think it will be interesting in so many ways. For instance, when I talk to people more or less of my generation, LPs still mean something, whereas for Charles Jabour, my new young and excellent LIVE Producer, LPs are a hipster thing.

I don’t think reading will disappear; it will change. For better or worse, Steve Jobs and his brothers and sisters in Silicon Valley have created the irresistible desire for these products. So I see part of my fundamental goal as an opportunity to create a sustained level of attention to immerse yourself for two or three hours in a conversation that might inspire you to go to the theater, buy a record in whatever form that takes, or a book, or become an activist.

WRR: Are you hopeful for the future of literature, art, and the life of the mind?

(He smiles.) I don’t drink Draino in the morning. And I can’t wake up and think we have a dumbing down of America when for each of our LIVE at the NYPL events, we have five, six, seven or even eight hundred people showing up. I believe people are hungry for culture and hungry for true conversation.

What you can’t do is stop. You have to go on like Samuel Becket’s character in his book, The Unnamable:  “You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

Working at a large cultural institution and bringing in a star like Jay-Z sent a few eyebrows in different directions. But, truth be told, part of my role is to continually challenge myself and my audience, and ultimately to continue to be surprised.