In Full Stop:
Paul Holdengräber of the New York Public Library claims that good conversation can leave one “hopeful about the possibility of speech.”
As one of the world’s leading conversationalists, he would know. In the hundreds of events he’s done since coming out to New York a decade ago to join the library as their director of Live from the NYPL, he’s spoken with everyone from Mike Tyson to John Waters, Toni Morrison to Matthew Barney, Pete Townshend to Paul Auster, Harold Bloom to Jay-Z. Listening to him talk with various artists and intellectuals, one is reminded of the fact that Western philosophy began with dialogue. How could it have started with anything else? Conversation, which is really just connection, is what makes us human, what gives us our will to live.
I’ve never been more hopeful about the possibility of speech, and thus hopeful about the possibility of life itself, than the two times I’ve had the privilege to converse with this curator of public curiosity.
Tyler Malone: What is conversation to you and what is its value?
Paul Holdengräber: It’s interesting to have children in that regard because one thing you notice very early on is that conversation is how we become human. The word “infant” literally means “without the possibility of phatic expression.” We begin our lives by being spoken to and then slowly by responding. It’s what makes us come together as a kindred species. Without this dialogue, without this possibility of exchange, part of our humanity — that which makes us truly human — is lost. So for me conversation is a way of going back to that initial moment. Conversation is a giving and a taking, back and forth.
You know, the only sport I emphatically love is ping pong. Now I often play with my young boy at six in the morning before he goes off to school. I caught myself thinking the other day that our game was but a variation on what I do professionally. Ping pong is a form of exchange, of back and forth, of quick and slow, of spin and no spin — conversation is something of that nature.