Two friends sat casually across from each other, joking and talking about work. If there were a television, a football game and six-pack of cold beer, they could have been in any living room across America. Instead they were sitting in the Wachenheim Trustees Room of the New York Public Library, before an audience of around 100.
Hal Foster and Joseph O’Neill headlined the second event of the ninth season of “LIVE from the NYPL”, with a candid chat about O’Neill’s newest novel, “The Dog.” “The book is hopefully smarter than I am, otherwise it would be quite depressing,” said the roguish Irish writer, eliciting a laugh from the audience. “I’m here on your behalf, just to remind you,” responded Foster, his long-time friend.
The two shared witty barbs, took a few jabs at literary criticism and answered questions from the audience. It wasn’t your average night at the library.
The event was organized by Paul Holdengräber, the director of the LIVE series, which includes conversations, debates and performances with today’s leading writers, artists, filmmakers, musicians and cultural icons.
“The most important thing for me is to make this institution hospitable,” he said after the event, standing in a colossal marble hallway at the library.
He’s achieved this by making the solitary act of reading a communal one and creating a space for conviviality and jokes, like those of O’Neill and Foster.
“There is a tremendous appetite for conversation about books,” said Rebecca Mead, a staff writer at The New Yorker and one of LIVE’s former guests. When those books range from Voltaire’s “Candide” to Keith Richard’s memoir “Life,” the library suddenly draws in rock-and-rollers as well as intellectuals. “I give huge credit to Paul for bringing people into the library,” said Mead.
Holdengräber wants to reach more than what he calls the usual suspects. Since the program’s 2005 debut, the average age of audience members has dropped by two decades, he said. When Keith Richards came for a visit, the tickets sold out immediately; other guests have ranged from Jay-Z to Joan Didion, Bill Clinton to Zadie Smith, Spike Lee to the late Norman Mailer.
Audience members credit Holdengräber for his ability to connect with these celebrities onstage. Speaking with a thick Central European accent and infectious enthusiasm, he defies the boundaries of age and race and occupation. “Paul always radiates what is the rarest and most precious of all gifts in a public speaker: the ability to listen,” said Pico Iyer, a novelist and another participant in the LIVE series.
“He brings that same kind of intensity and passion to every conversation he’s engaged in, while also adding a human and personal element.”
Holdengräber has played ping-pong with artist Maira Kalman, listened as The Who’s Pete Townshend played guitar, and invited 100 of the city’s top boxers to see him in discussion with Mike Tyson. He took some of the athletes on a tour of the special collections, and showed them an early edition of Machiavelli’s “The Prince.” He has also given tours to classes from Barnard College and encourages other area teachers to use the library as a resource.
He wants to make people feel they are always welcome, he said. That means creating an environment that encourages being physically present. “We live under the ampersand,” said Holdengräber, explaining that he doesn’t see the library an either/or institution. He believes that it should cater both to the visitor who comes to read a book and the one who works on a laptop, and it should also create a sense of community.
Holdengräber often credits his father with teaching him that there is a great connection between being interested and being interesting. These days, he enjoys making a living at it.
This season’s guests include Alexei Ratmansky, Michael Ignatieff, Marjane Satrapi, Bryan Stevenson in conversation with Sister Helen Prejean, George Clinton, Neil Gaiman, Tehran Noir in conversation with Tel Aviv Noir, William Gibson in conversation with James Gleick, Joyce Carol Oates, and Marlon James in conversation with Salman Rushdie. For a full schedule of events, please visit http://www.nypl.org/events/live-nypl
Correction: An earlier version of this story said that Keith Richards tickets sold out in 42 seconds, which Paul Holdengraber meant as a joke, and that all of the boxers invited to the Mike Tyson event toured the special collections.