Paul Holdengräber’s office, tucked behind the New York Public Library’s main rotunda, is a frosted glass cube full of rectilinear shapes—tidy spines on steel shelves, hardbacks in higgledy piggledy stacks like a game of Jenga, new galleys squeezed between reference tomes. “When I moved from LA, the movers informed me I had 16,000 pounds of books,” he says with a laugh. Of course, there were books where he was going, “but they aren’t mine.” Holdengraber is the bibliophile impresario behind LIVE from the NYPL, an interview series he has presided over with impish erudition since 2004. Wes Anderson spoke on Stefan Zweig and The Grand Budapest Hotel in February; Karl Ove Knausgaard and John Waters are on the docket the first week of June. Mixing—old volumes and new releases, books and the people who read and write them—for maximum fizz is Holdengräber’s curatorial style. His mission has been “to oxygenate the library,” and he describes the stately reading rooms encircling Astor Hall as Ellis Islands, “points of entry” where you find yourself “surrounded by tens of millions” books, “some extremely good ones, some extremely bad ones, all available to you. As a citizen, in some form or fashion, you can read, no questions asked, for free.” Holdengräber, who has interviewed the British psychoanalyst and philosopher Adam Phillips onstage as well as in print for the Paris Review, searches a shelf for a copy of Houdini’s Box. “Here it is,” he says, proffering the slim black paperback like a skeleton key. “Houdini channeled our desire for escape. And that’s what Adam does, in this book.”
I’m most concerned about the erosion of our capacity to focus, and how reality has truly changed: you can exchange text messages with someone without even knowing that this person happens to be in Australia. Space has become something different.
It’s not mandatory to bring a bottle of whiskey to Brazenhead Books, the unmarked bookshop hidden in a nondescript walkup on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, but failing to do so could be considered bad form. That, however, is as far as formalities extend. Michael Seidenberg has been running Brazenhead out of his former apartment for decades, and though it’s no longer his home, the space retains that intimacy.