Friday, March 17, 2006

A yearning for the tangible.

In the Age of the Overamplified, a Resurgence for the Humble Lecture

By DINITIA SMITH

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. "There was a line 150 meters long of people who couldn't get in. It went around the corridors of the library."

In October, similar numbers lined up to see Bill Clinton interview the historian John Hope Franklin about race relations and to see the song-cycle version of "The Elements of Style," by Maira Kalman and Nico Muhly. "Several hundred non-ticket holders had to be turned away from all the events," Mr. Holdengräber said.

"I feel like I'm running a rock concert series," he said (though unlike at rock concerts, the performers at the library are rarely paid; many do it because they have a book to plug). "I wanted to go beyond academic discourse and speak to a very large public, and to the common reader."

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.

But the library is not the only place that has seen an increase in attendance at spoken-word events. Uptown at the 92nd Street Y, Helaine Geismar Katz, the associate executive director who is in charge of public programs, said she had seen "a big change" in the size of audiences at the Y's lectures and panels. Like the library, the Y has increased the number of its lectures, debates and forums to feed the public appetite.

"We have had poetry for over 60 years, every Monday night," Ms. Geismar Katz pointed out. "Now we have programs almost every single day and night."

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.

Similarly, the New School for Social Research has a heavy schedule of readings and discussion groups on the arts, careers and politics, often in conjunction with the World Policy Institute. "Last spring we did not have more than 500 people coming to any event," said Linda Dunne, dean of general studies. But a year later, three weeks into the semester, she said, the New School has had five events with more than 500 people each. On April 6 through 8, the New School will hold a three-day tribute to the poet John Ashbery, with readings and symposiums by other poets and scholars.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has always had good crowds at its panels and lectures, said Hilde Limondjian, general manager of concerts and lectures. 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.

"Now we do 20 to 25 readings a month," Mr. Woychuk said. "There is fiction on Sunday, poetry on Monday. Tuesday is mainly nonfiction. On Wednesday there are special events with different literary groups, magazines, journalists. We have science fiction."

"Thursdays is becoming more like Wednesdays," he said, with special events. Fridays are the same, he said.

"We're starting to do more and more on the weekends," Mr. Woychuk added. "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."

KGB holds about 75 people, and when celebrity authors like Billy Collins or Michael Cunningham read, he said, "it's spilling out the door, and we have to basically cut it off."

"People come hours early and camp out, as though they're trying to get World Series tickets," Mr. Woychuk said.

Another, very different small site, the Frick Collection, is also attracting crowds to its lectures. Last November, when the novelist Colm Toibin delivered a talk on Henry James, the hall was full, and latecomers had to be seated in another room to watch the event by videocast. The Frick's chief curator, Colin B. Bailey, said that the museum was offering more programs than ever before and that it hoped to add two more spoken-word events this year.

"We think there's an audience for it," Mr. Bailey said. "There's a kind of authenticity about having a living writer or artist in front of you."

The current enthusiasm for lectures and spoken-word events calls to mind the 19th century, when crowds flocked to hear Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Mark Twain and Henry Ward Beecher lecture, said Donald M. 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.

But why the resurgence now? In the 19th century the increase in the number of lectures and debates came at the same time that "there was an explosion in print," Mr. Scott said in an interview. It was "staggering, equal in its scope to the kind of explosion we are seeing in electronic and TV and visual media."

"I think it's a symbiotic relationship," Mr. Scott said. "There is something to listening to a figure you may have read or heard about. Even though what they have to say may be something you can get in another form, it's a way to feel you are actually in touch with these ideas and these figures."

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.

"Before 9/11," she said, "it was difficult to sell a ticket to something on foreign affairs." But now, Ms. Geismar Katz said, "we can't keep a ticket in the house."

"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."

The increase may also have something to do with the demographic bubble of baby boomers, who are aging out of the group catered to by Hollywood and other producers of popular culture. "They make the same 10 movies," said Mr. Woychuk of KGB, who is 52. "How many times can you see the same movies?"

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.' "

"I love it," he continued. "It's the best way to be reminded of who's out there actually reading and who books are for, and to be reminded that writing is a highly energized, sexy, deeply complex relationship between writer and reader. It's something you tend to forget when you're sitting alone in your room writing something for people you don't know and will never see."

Meanwhile, Mr. Holdengräber of the Public Library is setting his sights on even bigger audiences. "I'm asking people to give me two or three hours of their time," he said, "and I will entertain them."

"I will bring them into contact with other people," Mr. Holdengräber promised. "They will feel something happen that night that they have never felt before."

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

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