Review of Robert A Caro’s Working

This isn’t a review, it is a reflection, an act in keeping with the lessons shared by a master of his crafts – of writing, research and explaining power. Robert A Caro is well-known for taking a long time to write his books (a biography of Robert Moses, the person who shaped modern New York from behind the scenes, and four–soon–to–five volumes of a biography of LBJ, the president who passed the first Civil Rights Act in the US since the Reconstruction, but also waged the disastrous war in Vietnam.

There are many reasons I love this book: learning about Caro’s process, the intensity of his mastery of writing, the depth of his work, how he explains political power, and his humility in his understanding of himself.

You understand why it takes after reading this book. There are years of research and then intense thinking and writing about what the book is about, which produces between one and three paragraphs that are the essence of the book. Then the outlining begins, and once it is all laid out the first draft of the book, three pages at a time, with redrafting happening all the way up to the galley proofs – “I’d rewrite in the finished book if I could…”.

As well as the long process of producing the book there is the depth of commitment to the subject and the theme. Surprisingly, Caro is not obsessed with LBJ as much as his life’s mission – to explain political power to the world.

Caro is also very self–aware. He knows himself so far as he he knows how he has to work, what he is working for and where his strengths and weaknesses in the process are. He also knows what he doesn’t know about himself – he doesn’t know why he has to write in this way or to this end. He accepts who he and why he must write like this, but is aware that parts of him are a mystery even to him. He understands his subjects and their motivations better than anyone, perhaps better than they did themselves – Moses’s pursuit of a complete vision of what New York could be, Johnson’s drive to get away from his isolated, poor origins, and the drive to improve the lot of those in poverty and his shame at his upbringing.

Caro is 87 now, and still pushing to finish his final volume about LBJ, after which he wants to write his own full memoirs, though he’s realistic about the odds of being able to complete the latter project. Perhaps.

A last note. I read and listened to this book in turn. The Audible narration is by the man himself, and the better for it, a rich, rolling old New York accent it has a sense of place as much as the one he tries to evoke in his work. (Have a listen for yourself to the sample on Audible.)

I’ve not read any of Caro’s thousand–page plus biographies yet – and I don’t think I would have had it not been for opening Working and realising what works of genius they would be.

Choice quotes

On working slowly on purpose:

When I decided to write a book, and, beginning to realize the complexity of the subject, realized that a lot of thinking would be required—thinking things all the way through, in fact, or as much through as I was capable of—I determined to do something to slow myself down, to not write until I had thought things through. That was why I resolved to write my first drafts in longhand, slowest of the various means of committing thoughts to paper, before I started doing later drafts on the typewriter; that is why I still do my first few drafts in longhand today; that is why, even now that typewriters have been replaced by computers, I still stick to my Smith-Corona Electra 210.

On his first mentor’s advice about investigative reporting that guided all of his work thereafter:

I responded with my usual savoir faire. “But I don’t know anything about investigative reporting.” Alan looked at me for what I remember as a very long time. “Just remember,” he said. “Turn every page. Never assume anything. Turn every goddamned page.” He turned to some other papers on his desk, and after a while I got up and left.

On hearing about how hard it was for black people to vote in the South in the mid–twentieth century:

When I asked David Frost if he himself had ever attempted to register he said he had, some years before—and had in fact succeeded. But, he said, that had not turned out to be a happy experience for him. Previously, he said, white people in Eufala had always been friendly to him, had called him “David” or “Boy.” But after he registered, they called him “Nigger,” a word, he said, “I just hated, hated.” And when whites heard that he was planning to actually cast a ballot on Election Day, he said, a car had pulled up in front of his house, and the men in it had shot out the lights on his porch. He had thought of calling the police, but as the car drove away, he saw that it was a police car.

On how he manages to stay silent in interviews, and how…

…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 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 myself, 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 “SUs” there.

On his routine for writing:

It’s not fixed. I write each day as long as I can. As I’ve said, I write my first drafts in longhand—pen or pencil—on white legal pads, narrow-lined. I seldom have only one draft in longhand—I’d say I probably have three or four. Then I do the same pages over on a typewriter. I used to type on what they called “second sheets,” brownish sheets, cheap paper like the paper used in the Newsday city room when I was a reporter. But those sheets are letter size. When I started writing books, I switched to white legal-size typing paper. You can get more words on a page that way. I triple-space the lines the way I did as a newspaperman, so there will be plenty of room to rewrite in pencil. I rewrite a lot. Sometimes I look at a page I typed but have reworked in pencil, and there’s hardly a word in type left on it. Or no words in type left at all—every one has been crossed out. And often there’s been so much writing and rewriting and erasing that the page has to be tossed out completely. At the end of the day there will be a great many crumpled-up sheets of paper in the wastepaper basket or on the floor around it.

On the purpose of all of his work:

I wasn’t interested in writing a biography but in writing about political power. I could do urban political power through Robert Moses because he had done something that no one else had done. He had shaped the city with a kind of power we didn’t learn about in textbooks, which tell us that, in a democracy, power comes from being elected. He had shaped it with a different kind of power. So if I could find out and explain where he got his power and how he kept it and how he used it, I would be explaining something about the realities of urban power—how raw, naked power really works in cities.

His emotions while writing sound very familiar to me – it’s comforting to know someone as accomplished as Caro feels this way too:

If you saw me during this process, in the first place you’d see a guy in a very bad mood. It’s very frustrating. I can’t actually say anything nice about this part of the work. It’s a terrible time for me. I sometimes think, You’re never going to get it. There’s just so much stuff to put in this book. You’re never going to have a unified book with a drive from beginning to end, a single narrative, a single driving theme from beginning to end. There’s just too much stuff.

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