by Jonathan Blitzer
There are fifty-two million items in the New York Public Library, if you count the artifacts, like pieces of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s skull and the walking stick that Virginia Woolf carried to the river’s edge. The other day, Thomas Lannon, a curator, was riffling through the collection, trying to find some objects that might interest Shaquille O’Neal, who was coming to the library that night as part of the N.Y.P.L.’s conversation series to talk about his new children’s book, “Little Shaq.”
Lannon was stumped. He’d considered original Superman comics, but they’re stored off-site. “Shaquille O’Neal isn’t really a scholar,” Lannon said, as he wheeled two boxes into a makeshift greenroom. “But he does have a doctorate”—in education, and also a master’s in business. One of his many nicknames is the Big Aristotle.
When Paul Holdengräber, the library’s resident interviewer, started the series, the staff created a tradition: before each event, the curators pull objects geared to the speaker’s interests. George Clinton was shown correspondence between Timothy Leary and Allen Ginsberg about psychedelics and jazz. Werner Herzog looked at a register of executions at San Quentin, and Patti Smith got to hold the Woolf walking stick.