An Interview with Paul Holdengraber

Paul Holdengraber has a unique job- to explore a wide range of tastes.

Through his program at the New York Public Library, LIVE from the NYPL, he creates an environment where renowned thinkers are invited to express their ideas on an array of topics, including literature, capital punishment, fame, art, boxing, psychoanalysis, and religion, in front of a live audience.

He has discussed Vienna’s cultural revival with Eric Kandel, delved into amyl nitrates with John Waters, and analysed the beginnings of Def Jam Recordings with Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons. In his own words, he endeavours “to make the lions roar and shake the foundations of this massive institution.”

Since 2004, Holdengraber has been the director of public events at the library and has had the opportunity to converse with prominent figures such 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 Diaz.

He often quotes Laurence Sterne’s saying that “digression is the sunshine of narrative” when asked about his approach to talking with people.

During his public talks (and our interview) he emphasises that people don’t usually make much sense, and his conversations often reflect this by juxtaposing serious analysis with spontaneous moments.

During a sold-out show with Mike Tyson, for instance, Holdengraber had Tyson go from talking about inner peace to praising the brutality of the Frankish kings in a matter of minutes. Tyson even looked at the audience and said, somewhat enviously, “That guy knew how to kill.”

Prior to relocating to New York City, Paul Holdengraber had been the founder and director of the Institute for Art and Cultures at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

In 2012, he initiated The Paul Holdengraber Show on YouTube’s Intelligent Channel, which was a loser version of the LIVE series. I had the pleasure of interviewing Paul a few times over the last couple of years at the NYPL’s Stephen A.

Schwarzman Building, located at Forty-Second Street and Fifth Avenue, where we discussed what it means to be a curator of public curiosity, the continuing role of libraries during the smartphone era and why everyone’s priority should be to “read, read, read, read, read.”

— By Lane Koivu


I recently attended your dialogue with Werner Herzog, and it was as if you two had been friends forever.

I have had the privilege of speaking with Paul Holdengräber on many occasions, and each time it has been a memorable experience. His ability to surprise and lead me into undiscovered territory is remarkable.

His definition of culture is inspiring; he states that “Culture is a collective agitation of the mind.” I believe that conversations such as ours can truly ignite the imagination and bring about new ways of thinking. Was this the first time you had encountered Werner Herzog?

QUESTION: It certainly was. We were entering Astor Hall, when my companion nearly collided with the person you were showing around the library.

I recall that we took Werner on a special tour. Generally, I would bring out visitors to the Special Collections. However, for him, we went to the Manuscripts Division. He got to view late nineteenth and early twentieth-century photographs of death-row inmates.

There were annotations underneath that labelled the executions as “successful” or “very successful”. I remember Werner intensely studying those pictures.

The library should not be thought of as a venue, but rather a repository of knowledge. When people are in the Celeste Bartos Forum, they should be aware that there is a spectacular reading room above them, with fifty-two million items spread across seven floors.

This should be a place of inspiration, where one can truly feel the impact of the library.

The workplace must be terrific.

ANSWER: It’s not a trivial matter.

QUESTION:asked what had led to the speaker’s current situation.

ANSWER: They eventually tracked me down.

QUESTION: During your visit to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, what did you experience?

ANSWER: When I was in Los Angeles, I established the Institute for Arts and Cultures, which caused quite a stir and ultimately led me to my current position. The then president of the New York Public Library travelled to LA and asked me to “oxygenate” the library.

My aim is to bring life to an otherwise heavy and static institution; to make people understand that the library is more than just a storehouse of books.

Alfred North Whitehead, in his book The Aims of Education, speaks of inert ideas, and the whole concept of culture is that ideas should not remain dormant. It is almost like a giant conversation – if all of the books could communicate with each other.

In your view, what would an ideal conversation be like?

Engaging with someone who has starkly contrasting experiences from your own, with whom you may assume there is no shared ground.

At QUESTION’s program, Mike Tyson was a guest recently, and the atmosphere was extremely tense. Everyone in the audience was sitting on the brink of their seats.

ANSWER: I had the incredible luck of speaking with Tyson, and was taken aback by his frankness. I inquired, “What is a trait you admire in a person?” To my surprise Tyson answered, “A hunger for success.”

At the age of seven, Tyson discontinued his formal schooling. He began picking pockets of his mother’s patrons, as she was a prostitute. There is not necessarily a correlation between academic education and inquisitiveness.

To recall, he once remarked, “I’m not a fantastic fighter, but I’m an exceptional student.” He dedicated numerous hours, especially on weekends, to studying fights, like an artisan would. He was captivated then and continues to be enthralled now.

Before taking the stage, Tyson nervously commented to me, “I’m scared.” I responded, “You’re scared?” When I requested him to read a section in italics, he replied with a puzzled, “What are italics?” I stumbled to explain it as “indented scripture,” but neither of us really understood what I meant.

Much debate was sparked by his showing up.

ANSWER commented that Tyson is an amazing figure, and he refrained from passing judgement. He’s had the chance to meet a variety of people from many different walks of life, such as Nobel Prize winners, presidents, writers, rock stars, and filmmakers, and he stated that Tyson was one of the most engaged of them all.

He watched the books intently, as if he was trying to soak up every last word.

QUESTION: His accomplishments make him a giant in the industry, yet he is also very delicate and timid.

ANSWER: A forty-seven-year-old man and a seven-year-old boy are present. This individual is one of the most powerful people, however it is not without its drawbacks.

There is a deep feeling of being abandoned, and being saved by an incredible tutor, only to be left when the mentor passed away prior to the individual becoming the world champion. Afterward, life has been anything but simple.

Tyson has lived more in his forty-seven years than some people get to in ninety-seven.

  1. If one does not read, they will fail to understand the world around them.

QUESTION: As a director, do you have the aim of rekindling people’s fascination with the library, taking a seat and probing information at their own pace rather than obtaining it from their phones in short, speedy bursts?

ANSWER: Your inquiry hints at the notion that one should visit the Celeste Bartos Forum with an outlook inspired by Hegelian thought. Afterwards, one might ascend to the reading room to explore the various concepts that were discussed.

Werner’s words to his pupils at the Rogue Film School echo the importance of reading: “Read, read, read, read, read.” Without reading, the world will remain unknown to you.

Oscar Wilde famously stated, “Either you make the art popular or the people artistic.” I believe that the public is able to appreciate a lengthy discussion. It is not true that we have all been mentally diminished to the point where we can only pay attention to a short video.

I’m asking people to invest their most valuable asset, their time, into something I’m offering them. I trust that two hours is not too much, and that the public is eager and thirsty for knowledge.

Curators of public curiosity sometimes don’t think the public is curious, however I think they absolutely are, and can be interested in a variety of topics, ranging from death row to an artist talking about Japan, to Jesmyn Ward, to a great chef talking about their craft.

My goal is to create a program that is diverse and unpredictable, where people from all walks of life are welcome. That’s very important.

QUESTION: In what ways has your job affected you in the last decade?

ANSWER: This has highlighted to me just how much I am still learning.

QUESTION: If you could invite anyone to the show, who would you choose?

I’m attempting to figure out how to bring Kanye West in for a chat. It would take me a few weeks to get ready for it, however, I would find out a lot. Furthermore, I would adore the opportunity to converse with Leonard Cohen. David Bowie, too, would certainly be a fascinating individual to talk to.

Little is seen of Leonard Cohen, as he rarely leaves his mountain abode.

I will have to take a trip to the mountain.

QUESTION: On average, how much time in a day is one devoted to reading?

On the average, the number is 28.

Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the amount of knowledge that exists?

I experience a feeling of intimidation when I’m around children.


QUESTION: Recently, I saw an episode of The Paul Holdengräber Show featuring David Chang, during which Chang suggested–although I’m not sure how serious he was–that he strongly believes that “people don’t make sense.”

ANSWER: I am very earnest about this! It’s remarkable you brought this up. This is something I am passionate about. It’s like we are Jean-Jacques Rousseau, giving our five kids to the Assistance Publique, and writing a grand treatise on education.

We are discussing the significance of marriage and we are the outstanding philanderer.

Our interests are broad and diverse, and sometimes you see one aspect of a person, and there is an entire other side that seems contradictory, and when you learn about it you’re astonished, but you’re astonished only because you think that human beings are–

QUESTION: Logical and reasonable.

ANSWER: It is sensible, indeed.

QUESTION: What is it about certain cultural figures who have been accused or convicted of terrible acts that people have a propensity for forgiveness for? People like Roman Polanski, Mike Tyson, and Woody Allen come to mind.

ANSWER: If I were to invite people who have good family values, I would have six guests in a decade. Would Dostoevsky and Jean-Jacques be considered moral? No, but what do we remember about them? What we learn from them is far more complex.

To answer your inquiry, there is a redemptive story behind it. We project our own wrongdoings and issues onto them and their flaws can be the source of creativity. As Sartre said, existence precedes essence; we are who we are first and define ourselves later.

People should be forgiven and given a second chance. A life with difficulties is not a life lived poorly.

When QUESTION arrived in 2004, what was absent from the library?

ANSWER: I’m attempting to reduce intimidation at the library, but it’s not just me. A lot of people there are trying to make it more engaging. The most prominent word in “New York Public Library” is public.

Within a short period of time, visitors can head to the Special Collections and access materials like Leaves of Grass written by Walt Whitman, drawings by William Blake, manuscripts of Virginia Woolf, and the pen of Charles Dickens.

When I spoke with Patti Smith, she was holding Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and the journals of George Eliot. It is in our hands- we have access to the memory of the world. We have to be aware of this fact.

In France, one must obtain 27 letters before they can see a certain manuscript, but here it is open. The library of New York can be considered the Ellis Island of the city. One hundred years ago, the immigrants went to the library in search of a place to sit, but also because it reminded them of home.

It reminded them of the coffee shops they had known. This is what I want to recreate- the same atmosphere of Vienna in 1900 when intellectuals from all backgrounds met.

QUESTION: Is there a stage where we can be content with our accomplishments?

No matter how many conversations I have, I’m never content. It almost seems like I’m searching for an idealistic perfect dialogue, which obviously isn’t real.

After the discussions, many people will tell me that it was one of the best conversations they’ve ever heard, but I’m left with a sense of disappointment. I can’t help but notice what was inaccurate and what didn’t go as planned. All I can think is, Really? Get a life!


The importance of recognizing plagiarism cannot be overstated. It is essential to understand the consequences of taking someone else’s work and presenting it as one’s own. Plagiarism can result in serious penalties, including fines and even jail time.

Therefore, it is important to be aware of the issues surrounding this form of intellectual theft and to take steps to avoid it.

The utilisation of technology has become an integral part of daily life, and its presence has been increasing at an exponential rate. In recent years, advances in technology have drastically altered the way we interact, work, and entertain ourselves.

This rise of technology has impacted virtually every aspect of our lives, from the way we communicate to the way we shop.

What can you share with me regarding the way you go about conducting your investigations?

ANSWER: I spend a lot of time reading and pondering my subject matter. I like to cover a range of topics that are all related. Just before you arrived, my assistant asked Eric Kandel where to begin, and I said we should start with Vienna, which both my parents left in 1940.

We will explore what Vienna stands for in terms of knowledge and the devastation of the Jews in Europe. I want to make it personal so I can bring my own experiences into the conversation.

Bringing my own personality and experiences to the table, I do not try to remain impartial during interviews. During my conversation with Werner, I certainly wanted to make sure I didn’t interrupt him.

It is similar to the theatre in that a lot of preparation is needed. I had 120 clips and images ready for him. He taught me to only give numbers instead of names, so that anyone could get the clip. This way, I could focus my attention on the person without having to consult my notes constantly.

I observed that you never avert your gaze – you always keep your eyes looking forward.

ANSWER: I strive to have a minimalistic approach when it comes to being on stage. That’s what I’d like to achieve in the future. With John Waters, it was very special – he was great.

QUESTION: Role Models has a very relaxed atmosphere, much like it would be if John Waters were conversing with the reader in person. He made frequent reference to Leslie Van Houten and the Manson murders, both within the book and in dialogue.

ANSWER: Wow, it’s incredible that you brought that up! He really has the ability to make you understand an individual that may seem completely different to you. This is something I find fascinating with someone like Jay-Z.

Although I have no idea about hip-hop, Decoded helped me understand a world I was unaware of. I had never listened to hip-hop until recently. I was interviewing Pete Townshend and knew nothing about hip-hop culture.

However, I am now passionate about learning everything about it. To quote the famous Italian historian Carlo Ginzburg, he would always say that he approaches his subjects with a euphoria of ignorance. This is exactly it. You know very little, yet the excitement of learning more is euphoric.

QUESTION: It is a recurrent statement of yours that “Straying off topic is the light that illuminates a story.”

ANSWER: Yes, that’s something I like to say frequently. It’s the way I think; when we converse, something new is often revealed. We explore various paths to reach a destination. Additional paths may be more interesting than the main one.

Do you take more consideration in the beginning or the close of a conversation?

ANSWER: The conversation’s arc was clear to me from the beginning; I knew where to start with Werner and where the talk would end. He likes endings, so you may have noticed him nearly getting up.

He isn’t looking for anything more than that. We’ll pick it up again later. I try to keep it to two hours, the same as an analytical session with a generous shrink. It shouldn’t be longer than a movie. [ Produces a metal stopwatch ] This is always on the table near me.

Then, about ten minutes before the two hour mark, I might say something like “In closing” to let everyone know that they can go and have dinner. At the same time, I want to leave them wanting more.

The only advice my mother ever gave me was to use my two ears more than my one mouth when in a conversation. When I am talking about a subject, I try to be as open and receptive as I can, so that my anxiety doesn’t stop me from conveying what I need to say.

It’s difficult to not be scared, but it is necessary.

I was curious to hear about your inspirations, however I’m not sure if there’s enough room for it.

ANSWER: To a certain degree, I was raised in a culture which was strongly focused on conversation and dialogue. This often happened in our kitchen, as my parents and I would debate and discuss various topics. Ideas and arguments were especially valued and it was important to be able to tell stories that were captivating.

I consider myself to be quite open-minded, reading different genres of literature from all around the world.

As I have gotten older, I have been especially interested in discovering things that other people may have found out when they were much younger, such as the fact that I heard Patti Smith’s music when I was fifty-one, while most people come across her work when they are fifteen.

QUESTION: What does a typical day consist of for you?

ANSWER: My work is a mixture of different tasks.

I’m forever finding new and noteworthy things, reading and preparing for events, conversing about various topics with different people, such as the city of Geneva and Harry Belafonte, organising trips to meet people like Claude Lanzmann, attending board meetings, and going to the Sun Valley Writers’ Conference.

It’s never predictable, and the ideas drive the action.

I’m often in the process of pairing one person with another, and talking is a huge part of my job. Conversation leads to more conversations, and I spend a great deal of time in verbal exchanges.

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