In the Age of the Overamplified, A Resurgence for the Humble Lecture
By DINITIA SMITH (NYT)
Published: March 17, 2006
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER, director of public programs at the New York Public Library, is the kind of person who, when he gets excited, literally bounces in his chair.
''My purpose is not only to make the lions roar,'' he cries. Bounce. ''But to trigger people's imagination.'' Bounce. Bounce. ''It's not only sex that's exciting,'' Mr. Holdengräber says, ''but the life of the mind. When you come into contact with a great idea, it can change your life.''
Mr. Holdengräber is riding the crest of a renewed interest in spoken-word events, lectures, debates, readings and panel discussions, in many corners of the city, from university auditoriums to the 92nd Street Y and bookstores and bars.
A spokesman for the library said that attendance at public events had doubled since Mr. Holdengräber, the founder and former director of the Institute for Arts and Culture at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, arrived a year and a half ago. Dr. Paul LeClerc, the library's president, added that since Mr. Holdengräber, 45, began making his imprint on public programming, the audiences had ''a different energy.''
''They tend to be much younger,'' he noted.
In January, Mr. Holdengräber said, when the French writer and philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy was interviewed at the library by Tina Brown, ''900 people showed up.''
''Diane Von Furstenberg and Lauren Bacall were there,'' he continued.
To be sure, some of the increase in attendance can be attributed to Mr.
Holdengräber's efforts to liven up the programming. One of the first things he did when he arrived was to change the name from the Public Education Program to Live From the N.Y.P.L. It also helped that he changed the time most lectures began, to 7 p.m. or later, from 6 or 6:30, to make it easier for people with jobs to attend. And he increased the library's e-mail database of potential attendees to 7,000 from about 500. He says he relies on e-mail messages now to publicize events rather than brochures, a change that enables him to program more spontaneously.
In addition to the Y's usual literary fare and forums on politics, it presents interviews with actors and comedians -- Carl Reiner, Jay Leno, Ralph Fiennes and Philip Seymour Hoffman are among those who have appeared -- most of which are sold out far in advance.
Its musical performances are often accompanied by talks as well.
Smaller outlets have seen a steady increase in attendance. Denis Woychuk, the principal owner of KGB Bar at 85 East Fourth Street, which is a center for readings by authors, said: ''We set up our first in 1994 on Sundays because Sundays were slow. Things were dead. I said, 'Let's do something that's going to be fun.' The business was secondary, but there was certainly that.'' Every eager young writer attending a reading means, of course, that at least one drink is bought at the bar.
''Used to be that if you did a literary event on a weekend, nobody wanted to come. But now we're getting a very good early crowd on Saturdays.''
Scott, a historian at Queens College of the City University of New York. At the peak of the country's lecture craze in the 1850's, nearly 400,000 people a week attended lectures in the northern and western parts of the country, he once wrote in an essay on the topic. In 1856, when Beecher lectured in Springfield, Mass., the organizers had to provide a special train so people from the surrounding areas could attend.
Ms. Geismar Katz of the 92nd Street Y said that the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have contributed to a renewed interest in public conversations. For years, the Y has had a lecture series with James F. Hoge Jr. of Foreign Affairs and Ralph Buultjens, a professor at New York University.
''It's not enough only to read -- our audiences are reading audiences,'' she added. ''But you always have that question you didn't get answered. Or at least, to hear it differently.''
But a spoken-word event is a two-way street, a symbiosis between performer and audience, with the performer nourished and encouraged by sometimes invisible cues of posture and attitude from those in crowd. Mr. Cunningham, whose novels include ''The Hours,'' has been reading at KGB for years, to standing-room-only crowds. ''It's very much about storytelling,'' he said.
''There's the sense of you're all gathered around the campfire -- 'I'm going to tell you about these people, and what happened then.' ''