The Quiet Revolution of Paul Holdengräber
Gone from the New York Public Library — But Not Forgotten
Turn on any electronic device at your disposal, and it won’t take long to spot the malady that ails us. Talking heads and wagging tongues hold forth in a split-screen shoutfest — living loud, interrupting, generously dispensing opinion. In a world so dominated by narrative, it is an act of revolution to engage in conversation. Discourse. An exchange of ideas. That relic of human history in which the participants take turns talking to one another instead of at one another. The quaint practice of listening openmindedly to the other’s point of view before adding your own to the mix. Not shot-gunning your talking points on national TV like gunslingers at the OK Corral. But quietly considering what the other has to say before opening your mouth.
For fourteen years between 2004 and 2018, Paul Holdengräber did just that with some of the leading cultural figures of our time. Given the screaming culture of the day, the practice was downright revolutionary.
Don’t get me wrong: Paul Holdengräber is not the Lone Ranger. He cannot take all the credit for the exhilarating cultural exchange known as Live from the NYPL, though he was its creator and director. It takes more than a few Tontos to keep a series of public conversations and performances like that running strong in the Big Apple for 14 years. It also takes the willing cooperation of renowned writers, philosphers, artists, scientists, filmmakers, musicians, chefs and educators, most of whom Holdengräber has engaged in lively, stimulating conversations that take the art of the interview to a whole new level.
But in case you haven’t heard, Paul Holdengräber has waved goodbye to his beloved lair between the roaring lions of the Fifth Avenue public library. At the end of December 2018, he literally rode into the sunset toward a new home and a new job in Los Angeles. Do not look for a silver bullet. There won’t be one.
What you’ll discover instead is a recorded treasure trove of provocative, deep-thinking discussions you are not likely to find anywhere else. Jay-Z, Werner Herzog, Tom Wolfe, Zadie Smith, Rebecca Solnit, Umberto Eco, John Berger, Spike Lee, Salman Rushdie, Brian Eno, Mike Tyson, Patti Smith, Kareem Abdul Jabar. And the beat goes on, 14 years’ worth. Each conversation brings out some unexpected perspective only Holdengräber, with his disarming charm and intellectual arsenal, seems able to elicit.
John Irving once said the best joke is not the one most people laugh at. The best joke is the one the best people laugh at. When I first heard that, it sounded like a recipe for snobbery. I don’t think that’s how Irving meant it, but you can see how the statement might be misunderstood. Especially in a divided America where half the country has been taught that college-educated folk regard them as ignoramuses incapable of complex thought.
It is on this ground that Holdengräber may have made his most important contribution. Ideas do not belong to one class or another. They belong to all of us. The trick is to find a language and a medium that speak to as many people as possible. Armed with impeccable academic credentials and the gift of gab, Holdengräber may have mastered the required alchemy through a wizardly application of social media.
I don’t know Paul Holdengräber personally. But I wouldn’t miss his always interesting Twitter feed (@holdengraber), which never descends into the many-circled, bot-driven hell the platform is sometimes known for. I’ve watched his YouTube Channel, The Paul Holdengräber Show, listened to his podcast, A Phone Call from Paul, and enjoyed as many of his Live from NYPL discussions as time allows.
That’s why I didn’t get all weepy when he announced his departure from New York. In the course of 14 years, he created a legacy worth revisiting whenever you can.
If you live far away from a cultural capital, as most of us do, programs like this are indispensable. You want to find out how David Lynch writes a screenplay, where his ideas come from? Watch his interview with Holdengräber. Suppose you didn’t have the grades, connections or money to attend Yale but would love to hear what Harold Bloom has to say about Walt Whitman and the daemon. Thanks to Live from NYPL, you’re a mouse-click away.
That’s why you shouldn’t lament Holdengräber’s departure either. His move to Los Angeles means he will serve as Founding Executive Director of The Onassis Foundation LA (OLA), an outpost of the Onassis headquarters in Athens, which will begin its work as a “center of dialogue” in 2019. This could not come at a better time.
In his 2018 book, Them: Why We Hate Each Other and How to Heal, Senator Ben Sasse argues that our current cultural divide is driven by the Digital Revolution — a major cultural shift as significant as the Industrial Revolution-and the loss of physical community. When we no longer feel a sense of belonging to our neighborhoods and communities, we turn to social media for “friends” who are not really friends. For “likes” that are no substitute for “love.” Research shows that when you have ten friends in your geographic community, you feel good about yourself and your world — it’s a feeling you don’t get when you have even thousands of friends and followers on social media.
What can the Onassis center of dialogue do about a problem like this? I don’t know. But I’ll bet Holdengräber has more than a few ideas. The new gig seems tailor-made for an international hitchhiker with a PhD, a guy who speaks four languages and excels at breaking new ground in the hardening turf of public discourse.
Since the beginning of the year, he has taken the art of conversation to Beirut, Kolkata, New Delhi, and Athens. Clearly, he is still committed to that quiet turning of the wheel back to a time when there were rules of civility, and people obeyed them. What’s that if not a revolution?
. . .
Thanks for reading my article! Here are a few others I’ve written for Medium you might also find interesting.