Saturday February 23, 2019
Turning Every Page with Robert Caro
Along with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, of course, another American we‘re all hoping lives long enough to finish his work is Robert Caro, who, in 1976, began a multi-volume biography of the then-recently deceased 36th president of the United States, Lyndon Johnson. Since then, he’s published four volumes, tomes really, that have taken us all the way to the first days of Johnson's presidency. He supposedly has 300-400 pages of the presidential years finished, which would be about one-third of the size of one of his normal books. He says it will take anywhere from two to 10 years to finish. He's 83.
On some level, it already seems a shame that a man has spent his life writing about another man, but it would be a particular shame if that work went unfinished, with the last, perhaps most important volume published posthumously. That said, Caro's books aren't merely about LBJ but about the sweep of American history; and if anything, America remains forever unfinished and in a state of constant reinvention. (Our latest is the two steps back variety.) So while such an end wouldn't be desired, it might be appropriate.
Anyway, he has a new book coming out, which isn't an LBJ book but a book about writing the LBJ book. Many fans are disappointed, perplexed, angry. “Finish!” they cry. But I'm so getting it. I loved the recent excerpt in The New Yorker, “The Secrets of Lyndon Johnson's Archives,” which is all about the slow, steady work of research; it's about the truths that are there if you take the time to turn every page.
All of this is in direct contrast to the current state of things, where not only is no one turning every page but few read past the headlines or check the source or timestamp of their latest rage—assuming it has a timestamp. Was this yesterday or five years ago? Was it 40 years ago? Judgment feels in lockstep with the news and sometimes a step or two ahead. And I'm talking legit news, not the manufactured variety. That's an even deeper problem.
Caro's pace you can feel in the New Yorker piece. I felt myself relaxing even as I read it. I thought: One of my people. My natural state.
Here's an excerpt from the excerpt:
V. Tricks of the Trade
In interviews, silence is the weapon, silence and people's need to fill it—as long as the person isn't you, the interviewer. Two of fiction's greatest interviewers—Georges Simenon's Inspector Maigret and John le Carré's George Smiley—have little devices they use to keep themselves from talking and to let silence do its work. Maigret cleans his ever-present pipe, tapping it gently on his desk and then scraping it out until the witness breaks down and talks. Smiley takes off his eyeglasses and polishes them with the thick end of his necktie. As for me, I have less class. When I'm waiting for the person I'm interviewing to break a silence by giving me a piece of information I want, I write “SU” (for Shut Up!) in my notebook. If anyone were ever to look through my notebooks, he would find a lot of “SU”s.
“Working” by Robert Caro, subtitled “Researching, Interviewing, Writing,” will be published April 9.