New Yorkers can point to many people, things, and institutions in their city that make it arguably the greatest city in the world. The New York Public Library is one such institution, and Paul Holdengräber, director of the library’s conversation series “Live from the NYPL,” is one such person. Almost everything I love about New York is typified in this curator of public curiosity. Whether he’s talking to Jay-Z or Werner Herzog, Zadie Smith or Elizabeth Gilbert, Holdengräber crafts unreasonably interesting conversations in front of live audiences to satisfy a public curiosity that we sometimes don’t even realize we collectively have. He likes to talk to the best people in their respective fields, and in the course of conversation to “see what falls out of their pockets.” With Holdengräber acting as a sort of cultural Robin Hood, we’re the lucky beneficiaries of his intellectual pickpocketing.
I recently spoke with New York’s most erudite conversationalist, forcing the interviewer to take on the role of interviewee. But he wouldn’t call what we did an interview, I don’t think, just as “Live from the NYPL” isn’t an interview series or a lecture series but rather a series of conversations. By the end of our conversation, unsurprisingly, Holdengräber was asking me as many questions as I had asked him.
Tyler Malone: How did it all start for you? How did a Texas-born, Viennese kid who loved classical music end up interviewing Jay-Z and Pete Townshend in the hallowed halls of one of the greatest libraries in the world?
Paul Holdengräber: I wish I could remember how it all started, and not only how it all started but how it all coalesced and came together. In terms of my birth, it’s not really that interesting — it’s only interesting because I’m told I have an accent, and people don’t really feel it is a Texan accent, and they don’t really believe that I could have actually been born there. I happen to have been born there by chance. My parents are both Viennese. They moved from Vienna to Haiti during the Second World War. Then they moved from Haiti to Mexico, where my sister was born. My parents wanted an American child — there were many different reasons for it — so I was born here and I have an American passport, which is very handy. It means I can be legally employed here. I’m actually legally employed by the library! Isn’t that fantastic?
Do you have many memories of America as a youth?
Until I came to graduate school, I hadn’t really spent a lot of time here. I hitchhiked through America when I was very young. I went through 29 different states when I turned 18, which was a great form of learning how to tell stories because the only thing you really have when you hitchhike is the lies you can tell people as they’re driving you around. That was helpful, actually.
When was it that you really became enamored with the written word?
I wasn’t really an early reader. I certainly wasn’t the idiot of the family, as Sartre qualified Flaubert. Flaubert started to read very late and was called, by his own family, “the idiot of the family.” Flaubert, when he read — I know this is a bit of a digression — he saw words, and couldn’t read a whole sentence. He started to read very deeply much later, which might have been a great advantage, for it meant that he read with extreme precision and clarity, but at a later age. But while I wasn’t the “idiot of the family,” I don’t think I started so early as to be called a Wunderkind, neither a Wunder, nor a Kind, really, at that point. I started probably in my late teens to really become serious about it.
When I turned 15 or 16, I had meningitis, and my father, with his great sense of humor, gave me The Idiot to read — which is a humorous choice, considering meningitis could make you completely debilitated in your brain. So I read The Idiot in bed when I was about 15, and then the world of literature and ideas opened up to me.
The written word is near and dear to you, of course, but I think the thing people associate most with you is “conversation.” Did your interest in deep conversation develop for you in tandem with your love of literature? How did that come about?
Conversation happened for me around the dinner table at my parents home — conversations that had a feverish pace, where I had to defend my opinions, arguing loudly — partly because my father is hard of hearing. That, by the way, is one of the reasons I think he’s still sane at 94 now, because his deafness helped him greatly in not having to hear everything. So because my father was hard of hearing, I had to make sure my voice was heard.
Conversation and reading are on some level related, I think, but also very different: one is by nature a dialogue, and the other is a solitary act. I’m curious if you think of them as related activities, or as sort of opposing ones?
On the one hand, what the reading room offers, if you take it as both a physical space and as a metaphor — the great reading room we have upstairs — is a place where, in the solitude of your own mind, you can wrap yourself up and be enraptured by the great minds of the past, or whatever it is you may be reading, and be alone. Literature is, in that way, a solitary act of being with your own conscience. And yet, reading is also a conversation — it’s a conversation over the ages. You are speaking to the brightest and the best without the cumbersomeness of their presence. Our physical being is an impediment in many ways (certainly our digestive system is).
I often think of it in dialectical terms. We begin with the solitude of reading which leads to the necessity of leaking, as it were, the pleasure you have to friends and the people around you, which then leads us back again to going deeper into the work. I feel like I’m circling an answer to your wonderful question, but I can’t quite grasp at what I want to say. Perhaps that is because I sometimes wonder if what I do is what should be done.
What do you mean by that?
Sometimes I think I would say that we should live with these things ourselves, and not in the public realm. But I can’t keep myself from conversation. I urge you to read in solitude, but I also want to pull you out of that solitude and create some sort of dialogue.
I think that’s human nature, no? To fluctuate back and forth between the public and the private, to have these enriching experiences on your own with the great minds of the past — but then there’s something rewarding about communicating to others still living, as well.
Sometimes. Sometimes it’s rewarding, and sometimes it’s terribly disappointing. It really, really depends. And I actually love the idea that what I do is so prone to failure.
One of my favorite things that you’ve said about your job is that it is “deeply rooted in dissatisfaction.” Could you talk about that, and what would be your “ideal” conversation (if such a thing could exist)?
I often think of it in relation to the figure of “the collector,” the notion that if a collection was ever complete, the collector would be dead. The missing element is so important.
Walter Benjamin, you mean?
Right. Walter Benjamin. I lived with that man for too long, so that any person I was involved with, it was a ménage à trois always. But I’ve gotten over it.
Back to your question though, it’s so rare that I feel at all satisfied after these moments in public.
Is that because you feel like you’ve missed out on some better moment?
Sometimes that. Like when I interviewed Pete Townshend, I just kept thinking “Oh my god, there were so many things I should have asked him!” when I looked back retrospectively. I always over, over, over, over-prepare for everything, and I’ve never learned to be economical in my means. I’m not an accountant, though places where you work often want you to be — I don’t know how to put it — respectful of numbers.
I would say for an hour and a half conversation, I spend weeks reading material and thinking about the work at hand, yet the final result is no better for that, at least in my mind. It might be better for all my research in the mind of someone else, but for me, it doesn’t feel that way. There are sometimes a few moments where I come out of it and I say “cuajo!” as they say in Spanish — it coalesced! Something happened, an exchange was made. But even still, this job is always rooted in dissatisfaction. I don’t think I could ever achieve that elusive, ideal conversation.
I know you do meticulous research and have a plethora of notes on stage to guide you through the conversations. Would you say you’re more satisfied when the conversation follows the track of your questioning or when it veers off on tangents and becomes a series of digressions?
Well, “digression,” as I think you know, is a word I vaguely like. I often quote the line from Laurence Sterne that “digression is the sunshine of narrative.” I would say I have an arc to the conversation, but I wouldn’t say I have a track that I attempt to follow. I do have a goal though, and my goal is that when I grow up, I would like one time to come on stage empty-handed, with nothing but my head.
Who, in all of history — if you could have anyone — would you want to have a conversation with on “Live from the NYPL”?
Well, some of the people I would really like to talk to I know wouldn’t do very well on stage. Marcel Proust is an example. He mattered to me nearly more than anyone, when I was 18. I read the whole of À la recherche du temps perdu in one summer. You can do it, anyone can do it. It was a choice, a choice most people don’t make these days. But it isn’t that difficult to do; two months of one’s time. The problem is now we have these objects of perverse and sheer distraction. They keep us from ever forming a long thought. But I would have loved to inhabit that brain for a while. Same thing with childhood heroes of mine, like Rainer Maria Rilke. I would have loved to have talked to him but I have no idea how he would have done on stage.
Rilke has a quote on love that I always thought would be a good definition of conversation: “Love consists in this, that two solitudes meet, protect, and greet each other.”
Yes, and it’s difficult. I think that’s the fourth letter of Letters to a Young Poet that you’re quoting from, and that’s very much a book that started a path for me. I was 16 and I went off, after reading that book, and walked from one part of Switzerland to another, from the Lac de Constance to the Lac Lu Mont — which is about 400 kilometers, or about 280 miles — on my own, because of the call of that book and the necessity of being alone. When I look back at that former self I think, “Oh my god, Holdengräber. Relax, it’ll be okay, it’s not so tragic!” Everything to me at that time was Rilke and Schopenhauer. Everything was gloom and doom and catastrophe.
I want to think more on this idea of who I would want to have a conversation with. I’d love to have been able to talk to Éric Rohmer, the filmmaker. I love his films. I also love jazz, and I would have loved to speak to Ben Webster. Have you ever listened to him? In Denmark in the ’60s he produced one of the greatest albums ever, called Atmosphere for Lovers and Thieves. Pretty good title. Also, Dave Brubeck, who just died recently — that’s really a missed opportunity as well. It would have been fantastic to talk to him.
When you choose who you put on “Live from the NYPL,” do you choose people who interest you, or people who you think interest the public?
It’s a mixture of everything. People always ask me how I come up with these ideas, and I tell them they assume too much. I’m interested in the idea of my tastes being larger than just mine. There was an interesting piece I read the other day about Maria Popova, about Brainpicker. This is just one person curating an experience. Her taste is much larger than just one person’s taste. I get the impression that that is also something that your site Full Stop aspires to as well. You want to curate an entry, a portal.
Your taste is obviously somewhat eclectic, and certainly the people you bring to the NYPL for conversations are a varied bunch. I’m curious about whether you see a difference between high and low culture. Do those distinctions exist for you?
I don’t know what I would say to that, other than that I am always in search of excellence. Your question is a good one, and an extremely relevant one, that so many generations have put their collective brain to. What I search for is excellence in whatever field. Upon reading Jay-Z’s Decoded, for example, I just thought: “This is really, really interesting.” I don’t really know. I just want the best people in their respective fields.
The best in their respective fields? But that can be taken to absurd ends, can’t it? I mean, are you going the have the best reality TV star? For some reason, I doubt that.
Probably not. You are correct. And probably not a lot of self-help authors, either. But I don’t know, perhaps that is a limitation?
I see this place as hopefully the most open institution in the world — or one of them, certainly. We’ve talked about my disappointments, but here, this is what I aspire to.