Co.Create

How Conversation Is Making The New York Public Library Roar

Man of letters, curator of public curiosity, and accomplished hitchhiker Paul Holdengräber reveals how he’s moved the marble of the NYPL with the LIVE interview series.

Paul Holdengräber doesn’t do tangents. But he does digress.

"Tangents seem tangential," says the director of LIVE, the New York Public Library’s interview series, while a digression "is like losing yourself in a city."

"With a good subject," he says of personalities like Jay-Z, Slavoj Zizek, and Patti Smith, "we can get lost together."

For Holdengräber, 52, conversation is a serendipitous art, one at the center of his mission to make the the library’s lions roar.

2013 promises to be a strong ninth year for the program, opening on January 29 with author John Irving and continuing with justice emeritus Sandra Day O’Connor and Momofuku chef David Chang, a mix typical of Holdengräber’s cross-cultural pollination. A self-described "curator of the public curiosity," he tickles the intellect of New York, finds and immerses himself in brilliant minds, and then helps to reveal their contents in hour-plus interviews--think Inside the Actors Studio with way more range.

Holdengräber also arranges conversations between unlikely but fitting pairs, like cartoonist Chris Ware and writer Zadie Smith, who spoke last year about building narratives, or the forthcoming meeting between flaneur-theorist-investor Nassim Taleb and psychologist-author Daniel Kahneman, who will come to some decision about how we make decisions.

Which is why it’s so funny that LIVE started, in a way, with hitchhiking.

Learn to meet everybody

Affable and thoughtful, given to interjections and button vests, Holdengräber may be a bundle of quotes wrapped up into a person. A casual conversation reveals a mental inventory amassed over a quarter century of intellectual life, as he hopscotches between Oscar Wilde ("Everyone knows the price, no one knows the value), Lawrence Stern ("Digression is the sunshine of narrative"), and Werner Herzog ("Culture is the collective agitation of the mind"), though antecedent to those aphorisms are two things his father always used to say to him: "fend for yourself" and "learn to meet everybody."

Paul Holdengraber. Photo: Jori Klein

Holdengräber’s family is from Vienna--his parents fled Austria at the onset of World War II and spent the war years in Haiti. He was born in Houston and raised in Brussels. He recalls how his parents made sure he went to public schools, not private, so that he’d be a member of a community, not a club (a notion extended to LIVE). And how to see the world? Hitchhiking: the only "moral" way of travel for a son before he reached 21.

So he tramped through Europe as a teenager and then came to America and went Kerouac through 29 states. He learned how to deal with people with and without means, people of different races and origins. In so doing, he could recreate his parents’ cosmopolitan Vienna around him--which sounds a lot like what’s happening at LIVE.

After all that hitching he wound up, like many ne’er-do-wells, studying philosophy and law in Paris, this at an historic moment: Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and Claude Levi-Strauss were all instructors.

"The volatility, the vulnerability, the possibility of exposing oneself, the possibility of opening to others," he says of his vigorously vagabond youth, "all of that is in a way part and parcel of what I do here, which is to bring as much as much of a diverse world to the library as possible."

He can meet these various intellectual adventurers as peers due to his own intellectual adventuring-

Fluent in four languages, he then went to Princeton to earn his PhD in comparative literature, writing a dissertation on the critic Walter Benjamin. Holdengräber then taught at private universities and became a "jolly good" fellow at the Getty Foundation, before he moved to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where he invented a department with the intention of showing that a museum could be more than a "mausoleum for Old Masters." He was at LACMA from 1999 to 2004, when former NYPL President Paul LeClerc called. He was coming to L.A. to have lunch with him.

LeClerc told him: "I want you to oxygenate the library." Holdengräber was recruited on the spot.

Between marble and a hard place

When Holdengräber arrived at the library, he recalls that the first thing that was said to him was "at the library we don’t." He was miffed.

"Who is the library?" he remembers asking. "Can I have lunch with the library? Who is the library that doesn’t?"

There was, by his description, a inertia amongst all that marble. To move it, he’d have to instill an entrepreneurial spirit in the organization, a project that’s ongoing.

"Otherwise it will die," he says, "just die a miserable and terrible death."

Contrary to popular belief, being a nonprofit doesn’t mean that you have to be mired in administrative stagnation. Just because it’s a venerable library doesn’t mean it needs to be old and fussy.

"We need to move from the 19th century to the 21st century very quickly," he says.

Part of this is enhancing the LIVE’s web presence. Its social platforms--across Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and Flickr--are vibrant, though he says they need to be more coherent. And the archives of LIVE content need to be showcased--while Jay-Z and Christopher Hitchens pull a lot of traffic, LIVE needs to figure out how to better present its archive, a challenge that many publishers face as well. Whatever the solutions are, he says, they won’t be based on how you’ve done things forever.

"We have to reinvent this," Holdengräber says. "It can’t just be talking heads."

Going toward that reinvention is a new series called Carte Blanche, still in its early stages of development. The idea is to give thinkers, artists, and writers carte blanche to create an evening where the library will be an engine of expression--"ask them to play the building." Invitations have been issued. The performance aspect of LIVE has precedent--Pete Townsend and Brian Eno have played the Celeste Bartos Forum, and on one memorable evening, artists Maira Kalman and Nico Muhly sang an opera based on Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, which, in Holdengräber’s description, seems emblematic of LIVE as a whole: It was "bending all rules of silence in the reading room, and perhaps some rules of grammar, but none of pleasure."

[Correction: A previous version of this post described Pete Townsend and Brian Eno as having played in the Reading Room, when in fact they played the Celeste Bartos Forum.]

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