An Interview with Paul Holdengraber

[Director, Live from the NYPL]
Holdengräber’s seven-word autobiography:
“Mother always said: two ears, one mouth.”

An Interview with Paul Holdengraber

[Director, Live from the NYPL]
Holdengräber’s seven-word autobiography:
“Mother always said: two ears, one mouth.”

An Interview with Paul Holdengraber

Lane Koivu
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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


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.

BLVR: It must be a great place to work.

PH: It’s not chopped liver.

BLVR: How did you end up here?

PH: Well, they found me.

BLVR: While you were at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art?

PH: Yes, I was in Los Angeles. I founded something called the Institute for Arts and Cultures, creating havoc in a way that basically set me up for here. The then president [of the NYPL] came out to LA and said that he wanted me to “oxygenate” the library.

I often say my goal here is to make the lions roar and to make a heavy institution levitate. It’s really to animate the shelves, to make people understand that the library is not just a repository of books. Alfred North Whitehead, in his book The Aims of Education, talks about inert ideas, and the whole notion of culture is that ideas are not inert. They are alive. Here it’s not unlike a very large conversation. Imagine if all these books started to talk to each other.

BLVR: What is an ideal conversation like for you?

PH: To speak to someone who is so different from yourself, whom you may think you have nothing in common with.

BLVR: You recently had Mike Tyson on the program. I was at the show, and you could feel an incredible tension in the room. The audience was on the edges of their seats.

PH: Speaking with Tyson was one of the most extraordinary moments for me. The raw roughness, the candor. I asked him, “What quality do you admire in someone?” And he said, “Appetite.”

Tyson stopped [going to] school when he was seven years old. Started to pickpocket his mother’s clients. She was a prostitute. There isn’t necessarily a relationship between formal education and curiosity. As you remember, at one point he said, “I’m not a great fighter, but I’m an extraordinary student.” He spent hours and hours over the weekends looking at fights, learning the way a craftsman would. He was fascinated and remains fascinated.

Before coming onstage, Tyson looked at me and said, “I’m terrified.” I looked at him and said, “You’re terrified?” During the talk there were many moments of discomfort. When I asked him to read a passage in italics, and he said, “What are italics?,” I couldn’t explain it. I said something like “indented scripture,” and then nobody knew what I was talking about.

BLVR: There was a bit of controversy surrounding his appearance.

PH: He’s an extraordinary icon, and quite frankly I don’t stand in judgment. He’s served his time. Who am I to judge? I’ve brought in Nobel Prize winners and extraordinary people, presidents of countries, heads of newspapers, rock-and-roll musicians, great filmmakers, you name it. I have rarely seen anybody as immersed as Tyson. He looked at the books with such tension, as if he wanted to gorge himself and swallow them.

BLVR: He’s such a massive figure, yet he also comes across as extremely vulnerable and shy.

PH: I see a forty-seven-year-old man and a seven-year-old boy. He’s one of the most powerful people, in physical terms, but it doesn’t come without the vulnerability, the strong sense of abandonment, the sense of being redeemed by an extraordinary mentor and then abandoned by him because [his mentor] died before [Tyson] became champion of the world. And then, of course, a very complicated life afterward. He’s lived our lives tenfold. He’s forty-seven and has lived more than most people have when they’re ninety-seven.


BLVR: As the director, are you trying to remarry people’s interest in coming to the library, sitting down, and exploring things on their own instead of getting their information on their phones in short, quick bursts?

PH: There are many things in your question. One of the things it implies is the notion that you go down to the Celeste Bartos Forum and you have an experience, hopefully with a Hegelian frame of mind. You graduate to the idea and you go upstairs to the reading room and you go and explore the various ideas that were expressed in the conversation. Remember what Werner says to his students at the Rogue Film School: “Read, read, read, read, read.” That is his motto. Because if you don’t read, the world is lost on you.

There’s also a trust in the intelligence of the public. Famously enough, Oscar Wilde said, “Either you make the art popular or the people artistic.” I personally believe that the public can enjoy two hours of sustained conversation. The notion that we’ve all been dumbed down and can only stand a three-minute clip is not right.

In a way I’m asking from the public the most precious commodity that anybody has, which is time. And I’m somehow trusting that one hundred and twenty minutes is not too much. Therefore, I also believe that the public is very eager and strives toward knowledge. The public wants to know. Curators of public curiosity sometimes don’t think that the public is curious. I actually think they are, and I think they can be curious about death row, about an artist talking about Japan; they can be curious about Jesmyn Ward; they can be curious about a great chef talking about his or her craft. So part of my goal is also to create a program that is not predictable, where people from all walks of life come. And that is very important.

BLVR: How has the job shaped you over the past ten years?

PH: It’s made me more aware of how little I know.

BLVR: Who would you like to have on the show?

PH: David Bowie would be so interesting to talk to. I’m trying to figure out how to invite Kanye West. It would take me weeks to prepare, but I’d learn. And I would love to have Leonard Cohen.

BLVR: Leonard Cohen? He doesn’t come down from the mountain much.

PH: Then I’ll have to go to the mountain.

BLVR: How many hours a day do you spend reading?

PH: Twenty-eight, on average.

BLVR: Do you ever get intimidated by knowledge?

PH: I’m intimidated by children.


BLVR: I recently watched The Paul Holdengräber Show, and during an episode with David Chang you said—and I don’t know how serious you were—that you strongly believe that “people don’t make sense.”

PH: I am very serious! It’s funny you should bring that up. This is something I dearly, deeply believe in. I don’t think we make sense. We are Jean-Jacques Rousseau, sending our five children to the Assistance Publique, and we are writing the great treatise on education. We are speaking about the importance of marriage and we’re the great philanderer. Our tastes are catholic and divergent, and sometimes you see one side of a human being, and there’s a whole other side that seems different, and when you learn about it you’re so surprised, but you’re surprised only because you think that human beings are—

BLVR: Rational.

PH: Rational, yeah.

BLVR: Why do you think there’s a certain fascination and capacity for forgiveness for cultural figures who have been accused or convicted of horrendous crimes? I’m thinking of Roman Polanski, Mike Tyson, Woody Allen…

PH: If the basis of my invitation was to invite people who are nice, with good family values, I’d have six guests to invite every ten years. Was Dostoevsky a good family man? Was Jean-Jacques absolutely moral? No, but what do we remember about him? What is important? What is important about the people we read and think about? We learn all kinds of complicated things. But I think that, to answer your question, there is a redemptive story. In some way, we also project on people many of our own failings and demons. The great failings, in some way, can spur creativity. We also believe—insofar as existentialism matters as much to us as essentialism—that existence precedes essence, which is Sartre’s point of view: we are first, and then we define ourselves later. We change, which is why people pay for their mishaps, as Tyson did. We must be able to forgive and give people another chance. A life that is filled with problems is not a life that is badly lived.

BLVR: What was missing from the library when you got here, in 2004?

PH: I think the intimidation, what we were talking about before, is something I’ve been striving to rectify. It’s not just me. There are so many people at the library who are striving to make this institution more alive. For me the word public in “New York Public Library” is the most important word. Within twenty minutes of arriving at the library, you can go up into the Special Collections and have access to Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman. We have the drawings of William Blake; we have Virginia Woolf’s manuscripts; we have Charles Dickens’s pen.

When I interviewed Patti Smith, she had in her hands A Room of One’s Own; she had in her hands the journals of George Eliot. It’s in your hands. The memory of the world is there, and it’s ours. You have to think about it. If you go to France, you have to have twenty-seven letters before you get to see such-and-such manuscript. Here it’s open. This is the Ellis Island of New York. If you think of it, one hundred years ago all the immigrants came to the library because it was a warm place to sit, but also because in a way it reminded them of home. You know, it reminded them of the great coffee shops they knew. I think that’s really important. In some way, that great moment in Vienna in 1900 when intellectuals from all walks of life came together—that’s what I want to create.

BLVR: Do you think we ever reach a point where we’re satisfied with what we’re doing?

PH: I never feel satisfied. Perhaps I’m looking for the Platonic ideal of the perfect dialogue, and it eludes me. Often people will come up to me after these conversations and say, “This was one of the best conversations I’ve ever heard!” and I feel like saying, Get a life! I mean, really? I look back and I can only see the false and the failings.


BLVR: Tell me a little bit about your research process.

PH: Basically, I spend an enormous amount of time reading, and as much time as I possibly can thinking about the subject. And then I construct in my mind the arc of the conversation. What I like to talk about is an organized web of obsessions. Just before you came in, [my research assistant] said, “Where do you think you’ll start for Eric Kandel?” And I said, “I think in this particular place, we’ll start square in the center, with the Vienna that he left at age eleven, and the Vienna of my father, who’s ninety-five years old.” Both my parents are Viennese, and left Vienna to spend the war years in Haiti, which my father left after his second year of medicine. We’ll start with what promises Vienna still offers us today as a model for knowledge, and what was destroyed with the assassination and destruction of the Viennese and other Jews in Europe. I think I want to make it rather personal at that moment and bring my own body into the conversation.

I’m not an impartial interviewer. I bring my own personality and sense of self into it. When you came to Werner, I wasn’t absent. I was there. Hopefully I didn’t interrupt him but brought to the conversation my own experience. So the preparation is very important. It’s a bit like theater in that there’s so much more behind the scenes. I had 120 clips and images ready for Werner. I had what he taught me, which is: never give names, only give numbers—seventeen, twelve, nineteen, fifty-five—so that anyone can get the clip right. Because when you talk to someone, you don’t want to constantly be in your notes. But you’re going to need some things.

BLVR: That’s what I noticed, watching you: you never look down.

PH: Very little. As little as possible. The goal is to arrive onstage with nothing. When I grow up, that’s what I’d like. But as little as possible. With John Waters, that was just… he was so wonderful.

BLVR: Role Models is very conversational, almost as if John Waters were in the room talking directly to you. And the way—both in the book and in conversation—he brought up Leslie Van Houten and the Manson murders…

PH: Oh, god! Yeah. It’s amazing that you remind me of that, because in a way he tests the limits of empathy. He manages to make you understand a person so dissimilar from you. Which is not unlike my fascination for someone like Jay-Z. I mean, what do I know? I know nothing about hip-hop. But somehow Decoded got me to understand a world I didn’t know. I never listened to hip-hop until very recently. I recently interviewed Pete Townshend. So what do I know about that world? Nothing. But I’ll discover everything. And what a joy. So I always say, using the line of a famous Italian historian named Carlo Ginzburg; he always says that he approaches his subjects with a euphoria of ignorance. That’s exactly it: you know very little, and then it becomes euphoric just to learn about it.

BLVR: You often say, “Digression is the sunshine of narrative.”

PH: Yeah, it’s sort of my favorite line. I never can’t use it. I’ve said it many times because it’s certainly the way my mind works. When we start to talk, things fall out of our pockets. We talk, and the sheer power of continuity and serendipity enlivens a conversation. You go by many roads to arrive at some point. The side road, the back road are often so much more interesting than just straight on.

BLVR: Are you more concerned with a conversation’s end or its starting point?

PH: The arc of the conversation, when I think of it, is the beginning and the end. I knew where I started with Werner, and I knew where we would end. And Werner loves endings, so you may have noticed that he nearly got up. He doesn’t want anything beyond that. He knows that we’ll take it up again. I try not to go beyond two hours. It should be as long as an analytical session, if your shrink is generous. It shouldn’t be longer than a feature film. [Pulls out a metal stopwatch] I always have this on the table next to me. Always. And about ten minutes before the two hours, I might say something like “In closing,” just to give the audience a sense of relief that they can go and have dinner. And you also need to leave people hungry.

In a live conversation, there ain’t nothing except my mother’s favorite comment: two ears, one mouth. The only thing you have is to listen to the person. So when I talk about the arc, I try to relax—well, I don’t relax at all; I’m completely on edge—but I try to be as porous as possible, and not let the anxiety get in the way of dictating what it is I need to move on to. And also not to be too afraid, and that’s really hard.

BLVR: I wanted to ask you about your influences, but I don’t know if we have enough space.

PH: Partly, I will say that I was brought up in a culture of conversation and dialogue. A lot of it happened around the kitchen table, arguing with my parents. I grew up in a world where ideas and trying to sustain an argument were important. And so I think the influence came from that world in no small part. From a world where what mattered was also the stories you could tell. Among world literature, there’re so many things. I find myself so catholic in my tastes, and they go all over the place now. As I grow older I am more and more interested in things that people might have discovered when they were very young. The fact that I discovered Patti Smith when I was fifty-one when most people listened to her when they were fifteen.

BLVR: What’s an average day for you?

PH: It varies so much. It’s a mixture of discovering what is new and worthwhile, a mixture of reading and preparing for an event, of listening to something that has come my way, like talking about the city of Geneva and talking to Harry Belafonte and then seeing if I can make an arrangement to meet so-and-so; organizing a trip to France to visit Claude Lanzmann, to coming back from a board meeting or from the Sun Valley Writers’ Conference, which I just did. It’s so many different things, and speaking to so many different people. It’s never predictable; there are no two days that are ever the same. But it is very idea-driven, it’s very much—even like the conversation we have now—the substance of what I’m trying to accomplish. I’m always in the mixture of thinking who I can pair with whom. Conversation begets conversation. I’m constantly on the go of talking. I spend a lot of time talking.

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