From the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Power Broker and The Years of Lyndon Johnson: an unprecedented gathering of vivid, candid, deeply revealing recollections about his experiences researching and writing his acclaimed books
For the first time in his long career, Robert Caro gives us a glimpse into his own life and work in these evocatively written, personal pieces. He describes what it was like to interview the mighty Robert Moses; what it felt like to begin discovering the extent of the political power Moses wielded; the combination of discouragement and exhilaration he felt confronting the vast holdings of the Lyndon B. Johnson Library and Museum in Austin, Texas; his encounters with witnesses, including longtime residents wrenchingly displaced by the construction of Moses’ Cross-Bronx Expressway and Lady Bird Johnson acknowledging the beauty and influence of one of LBJ’s mistresses. He gratefully remembers how, after years of loneliness, he found a writers’ community at the New York Public Library’s Frederick Lewis Allen Room and details the ways he goes about planning and composing his books. Caro recalls the moments at which he came to understand that he wanted to write not just about the men who wielded power but about the people and the politics that were shaped by that power. And he talks about the importance to him of the writing itself, of how he tries to infuse it with a sense of place and mood to bring characters and situations to life on the page. Taken together, these reminiscences–some previously published, some written expressly for this book–bring into focus the passion, the wry self-deprecation, and the integrity with which this brilliant historian has always approached his work.
A former investigative reporter for Newsday, Robert Caro is the author of The Power Broker (1974), a biography of the urban planner Robert Moses which he won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize. President Obama said that he read the biography when he was 22 years old and that the book "mesmerized" him. Obama said, "I'm sure it helped to shape how I think about politics."
Caro has also written four biographies on Lyndon Johnson, including The Path to Power (1982), Means of Ascent (1990), and Master of the Senate (2002), and The Passage of Power (2012), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award. He is currently at work on a fifth and final volume about Lyndon Johnson
"Turn every page. Never assume anyhting. Turn every goddamned page" - Alan Hathaway, quoted by Robert Caro, Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing
It is weird to give a Caro book only four stars. I've read nearly everyhing (except the big Whale: The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York) he's writing and it seems nearly perfect. He is one of my favorite writers of nonfiction ever. His fanatacism to his craft is incredible. His old-school approach to research and writing is fantastic. But still, I only gave this book four stars much for the same reason why I gave McPhee only four stars for his writing book - Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process: I've read too much of it before. A lot of both books were cobbled together from other pieces and previous books (for example: On Power). So, part of my four star review is due to my hunger and expectations for Caro (I want new and I want more) and part is due to Caro (not his strongest book, and not original). Even in this book, I think there were two (maybe three?) different sections where the story of Caro's wife selling their home to help finance The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York pops up. I know the story. I've read it before. So, by the last time it is mentioned in the book, I begin to feel it is as much about myth-making about Caro (and again, I'm a Caro acolyte, I BELIEVE the myth) as it is about his craft.
Robert Caro is one of my favorite biographers. In this book Caro discusses his life but mostly provides information about how he and his wife do research about a topic. The number one take away I got from this book is do not hurry, take your time and do it right. He tells of hours in the archives, reading other people’s work, newspaper articles, diaries and letters. He also tells of traveling around doing interviews with people. He spent years doing the research, gathering material, organizing it and then analyzing it. The last thing he does is the writing.
A lot of the information in this book can be found in his book “On Power” and in his other essays, etc. I think he put together a collection of his shorter essays that discuss his writing and research methods and stuck them into this book. For those of us who have read most of his writings, this is all old material except for some pearls provided about research. I am tempted to give this only three stars; but because it is Caro, I will give it four stars.
I read this as an audiobook downloaded from Audible. The book is seven hours and fifty-five minutes. Caro narrated the book. It is great to hear him tell about what he does.
I think Caro is the greatest living writer out there (may he live forever--or until he finishes the last Johnson book). A lot of material in this book is old stuff--include in his other books or periodicals, but it's still wonderful to have it compiled in one place. My favorite essay in this collection was the one about importance of place where he talks about how living in the Hill Country and experiencing the barrenness of the land helped him understand Johnson's superhuman vote counting abilities and how Caro recreated his walk to the Hill at the exact time he was doing it so that he could understand why he would break out into a run every day on his way to work. I also love his work because it is human--he talks about how he needed to talk to the people who were hurt by Robert Moses, for example, to tell the full story. Now, please, for the love of God, Robert Caro, stop writing memoirs and GET BACK TO WORK.
Lately, a daily ritual for me is to offer a simple, silent supplication or prayer for two people of advanced age – two people I have never met, and whom I am sure I never will meet. I pray that they will live several more years in good health with continued mental acuity.
Robert Caro is one of these people. At age 83 he is still a few years from finishing the fifth and final book in his series The Years of Lyndon Johnson. Eight to twelve years elapsed between the publication of each of the first four books in the series due to Caro's insistence on time-consuming, meticulous research and constant re-organizing and re-writing of the lengthy volumes. But the results are all masterpieces. I am currently more than halfway through Master of the Senate, the Pulitzer-prize-winning third book in the series.
Caro's books are so much more than mere biographies. They tell the story of power in America – how power is won, how it has been wielded, how it has been maintained and lost, and how it has affected, for both good and for ill, those who have it and those who do not.
In this relatively short memoir Robert Caro talks about his work. He gives several insightful and interesting anecdotes. He also describes the details of how he painstakingly obtains the information for his books, through countless interviews and (literally) millions of pages of reading, constantly reorganizing, deleting from, adding to, and rewriting his manuscripts until, years later, he achieves the final product – a published book that he is still and forever wanting to enhance and improve.
I believe that if I had read the printed version of this book rather than having listened to the audio book, I would not have enjoyed it nearly as much. The audio book is read by the author himself, in his slow, purposeful, New York accent. I loved how he pronounced “raw” and “law” as “rawr��� and “lawr”. His wife Ina, whom he refers to frequently – always with obvious heartfelt love, respect, and devotion – he pronounces “Iner”.
I cannot recommend Robert Caro’s books more highly. They are not light reading, but they are more illuminating than anything I have ever read before, and so well written. This memoir, however, could probably only be truly appreciated by those who have already had experience with Caro’s writing.
Working by Robert Caro is a riveting book that basically highlights his career of bringing us no less than two Pulitzer prize winning biographies among his most commendable body of work. Caro was intrigued by power and his first biography was that of Robert Moses, who essentially built New York City. His next endeavor was the extensive biographies of Lyndon Baines Johnson. I must say that I have a lot of very dear historians that I have been drawn to over the years, but this biographer stands apart. I was so struck with the early years of Lyndon Baines Johnson and the Texas Hill country, of not only his roots, but that of his family and ancestors. Caro, realizing that he would never be able to understand Johnson's personality nor what drove him unless he lived in the Texas Hill Country, which he and his wife did for three years; and this is how you develop a sense of place. It was in those first several chapters of the first book about President Lyndon Johnson, that I was just riveted with the hardscrabble life that these people survived, and the difference that Johnson was able to bring to the people of the Texas Hill Country.
"And therefore I came to feel that if what I had for so long wanted to do what was to discover and disclose the fundamentals of true political power--not theoretical political power but the raw, naked essence of such power--then perhaps the best way to do that was through portraying the life of Robert Moses."
"By' a sense of place,' I mean helping the reader to visualize the physical setting in which a book's action is occurring: to see it clearly enough, in sufficient detail, so that he feels as if he himself were present while the action is occurring. The action thereby becomes more vivid, more real, to him, and the point the author is trying to make about the action, the significance he wants to grasp, is therefore deepened as well."
"It was a step--a big step--toward justice. That's why I tried first to figure out, then to explain how Lyndon Johnson managed to do it. Hard to figure it out, hard to explain it. Harder to do it."
"It's true that I think of the Lyndon Johnson books in terms of very large historical events and trends, because the books are the story not just of Lyndon Johnson, although even in those terms it's a monumental story--the desperate young man who pulled himself out of this incredibly lonely and impoverished place, who rose to the very height of power in America, what he had always dreamed of, and then gave it But the books are also supposed to be a picture of America during the years of Lyndon Johnson."
This is an odds-and-ends collection that functions as a brief Making Of documentary companion to his epic (and essential) Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson biographies. The recent New Yorker excerpt is essentially a more narrative alternate version, seamlessly combining information from many of the brief essays into one continuous story. The book is more scattered and not as elegant, but all the additional information is equally fascinating and a real tease for whatever extended memoir he's working on. You see his unflashy yet profound belief in the power of "researching, interviewing and writing" in action, watching with him as a breakthrough with a subject or source material reveals the hidden crucial moments that change everything.
There is something just as moving about watching Robert Caro in the process of sketching Moses' or Johnson's unparalleled ability to create and destroy as reading the finished product. Powerful political figures like them may shape our world, but it is writers like Caro who demystify them, who give the downtrodden a voice, who identify the ephemeral and arbitrary sources of power, of timeless possibility, and of the original sin baked into the American and by extension human experience. Usually I read fiction, and part of what appeals to me about Caro's work is how it articulates better than anything why writing is important, as important as any kind of politics. In the biographies that is shown by implication, but here it is explicit.
This quote might sum it up - "While I am aware that there is no Truth, no single truth, no truth simple or unsimple, either; no verity, eternal or otherwise; no Truth about anything, there are Facts, objective facts, discernible and verifiable. And the more facts you accumulate, the closer you come to whatever truth there is. And finding facts - through reading documents or through interviewing and re-interviewing - can't be rushed; it takes time. Truth takes time."
Having discovered the wonders of Robert A. Caro a number of years ago, I vowed that I would read all that he had written. Beginning with his work on Robert Moses, I was pulled into the intricate world of a biography that sought not only to explore the world of this powerful urban planner within New York State’s political realm, but also the personal aspects that drove the man to shape such change. While the book was massive, Caro’s writing made it come to life for me. Thereafter, I began the colossal task of reading and synthesising the multi-volume biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ)—with the fifth and final volume yet to come—in which Caro made the rise from rags to the White House appear monumental for a man who turned politicking into a new art form. Stunned at the superior nature of the writing, I wait impatiently for the aforementioned final volume of the LBJ biography. I saw this book floating around and gritted my teeth at the time, a tad disgruntled that Caro had penned a book on another topic rather than focussing his attention on the biography. However, I caved and chose to read this piece recently, missing Caro and his writing. I now slap myself upside the head for waiting so long, as Caro offers a behind the scenes look at how he got into writing—a journalist with Newsweek—and what led him to choose these two giants in their respective political fields. Between talking about his fact finding and early drafts of both the Moses and LBJ biographies, Caro shares how difficult it was for him to get people to speak with him until he showed that he was not just another journalist looking for a new angle to smear the man, but rather to get to the core of the truths that had long been rumours. Caro actually moved throughout Texas while researching the early years of LBJ, living in the same regions and speaking to some who remembered the 36th President of the United States when he was just a boy or a school teacher. Caro also discusses the reason his books take so long to put together, not least because he writes his first few drafts by hand (ugh!), but also due to the fact that he wants his research to be as thorough as possible. Caro does all his own work, using his wife to assist at times as well, but hires no outside help. While this is to be applauded, it makes his fans surely want to tear out their hair as they wait for the next publication—in my case, I have none to grab hold of. This short piece complements all the work that Caro has done and provides a tiny hint at what is to be expected in the final LBJ volume. At 85 years of age this October, there are concerns (both by the author and his fans) that Caro will complete the book, but I have as much faith as I can that he’ll come through with something. Ok, so maybe this is my way of pleading. Robert A. Caro... please finish the series!!! Recommended for those who have loved any (or all) of Robert A. Caro’s work, as well as the fan who loves to know some of the insider secrets to writing stellar biographical pieces.
While I have read many biographies in my life, Caro’s work is surely some of the best. I tell anyone who has an iota of interest in political biographies that they must look into Caro’s work, as both Robert Moses and LBJ have been treated so thoroughly under Caro’s analytical writing. The central character must be properly analyzed to get the full depth of their impact on the world in a biography, but Caro goes one step further; he seeks to understand some of the minute aspects that shaped the men about whom he based his research. Caro lays it all out here for the curious reader, pulling no punches as he admits the lengths to which he went to get answers. A piece like this is seemingly rare for an author to produce, allowing the reader inside their writing process and behind the secretive curtain of their interview process. Caro dazzles while being frank and uses the chapters to speak clearly about his process. While I mentioned above that I bemoaned his delaying getting Volume 5 completed on the LBJ biography, I am now in the process of eating crow and baking a humble pie. I needed this book to better understand one of the best biographers I have ever discovered. I sit here, unable to put all my words together properly, more because I am in awe of the man than that the book was too hard to review. Anyone who has picked up and positively reviewed a Caro piece will likely want to get this book for themselves. Then again, sometimes not knowing the backstory is best, though this piece is surely no sausage-making endeavour.
Kudos, Mr. Caro, for dazzling me with everything you do. I cannot wait, but will, for your next major publication!
“While I am aware that there is no Truth, no objective truth, no single truth, no truth simple or unsimple, either; no verity, eternal or otherwise; no Truth about anything, there are Facts, objective facts, discernible and verifiable. And the more facts you accumulate, the closer you come to whatever truth there is.”
Robert A. Caro has written a memoir that documents his method of work. It is split into the component parts referenced in the subtitle. He accomplishes this goal by using examples from his own writing – primarily his biographies of Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson. His books explore the sources of power – urban power in the case of Moses, and national political power in the case of Johnson.
Caro is an intentional writer – he decides the crux of what he wants to say, boils it down to its essence, then makes sure his written product fits this summary. Nothing superfluous is included. His research is meticulous. He does his own research, assisted only by his wife, Ina. He makes sure he can support his narrative with written documentation and facts. He conducts a vast array of interviews, searching for anyone who knew these people. He interviews key players many times, asking detailed questions to ensure he can convey the emotional context as well as what happened and why. In short, the depth and breadth of his research is astounding.
One of his main points is that writing non-fiction should be similar to writing fiction in terms of creating a sense of place, employing high quality prose, and instilling the narrative with a sense of rhythm and mood. He emphasizes that the non-fiction writer is telling a story, albeit one that has been researched and fact-checked rather than imagined. He believes the time it takes to follow the process, and pursue the truth, is well spent. This book is filled with great advice for writers, and I found it a pleasure to read.
Especially recommended to those interested in writing non-fiction.
My first Robert Caro book and, dare I say, not my last?
Beyond interesting, Caro takes the reader behind the scenes into his process.
Caro's thoughts on what great writing entails: “Rhythm matters. Mood matters. Sense of place matters. All these things we talk about with novels, yet I feel that for history and biography to accomplish what they should accomplish, they have to pay as much attention to these devices as novels do.”
A two-time Pulitzer Prize–winning author (The Power Broker and The Years of Lyndon Johnson)—I'm surprised that all three of the libraries I have cards with don't carry these books.
“When people say that power corrupts… I don’t happen to believe that. Power reveals. When you’re on your way up, you have to conceal what you intend to do. Once you get power, then you see it, what he really wanted to do.”
To look at the cover of this, you might think 'Dull, dry.' Not a bit of it. If you have any interest in writing, researching, why you might feel compelled to write or spend your days rolling around in words, or what makes a legendary writer tick, this is highly recommended.
Robert Caro je génius literatúry faktu spôsobom, ako bol Da Vinci najväčším géniom 15. storočia; nikto iný nehrá ani tú istú ligu a nikto sa po ňom už ani nebude pokúšať jeho výkon zopakovať.
Napísal najskôr 1300 stranovú biografiu muža, ktorý postavil infraštruktúru v New Yorku, ktorá je hlbokou štúdiou toho, ako funguje moc, a teraz posledných vyše 40 rokov (!!!) píše biografiu Lyndona Johnsona, momentálne "dokončuje piaty z pôvodne plánovaných troch dielov".
V úvode tejto kratučkej knihy (240 strán) sa dozviete, že po dokončení Johnsona by veľmi chcel napísať svoju vlastnú autobiografiu, ale "vie počítať" a chápe, že pravdepodobne skôr umrie, ako sa mu to podarí. Tak zozbieral pár svojich postrehov, mnohé už predtým publikované, o tom, ako sa píše literatúra faktu, ako sa robia novinárske rozhovory a ako sa skúmajú dokumenty.
Koho zaujíma písanie, je to povinná literatúra, hoci úplne všetci ostatní autori na svete si v porovnaní s Carom budú nevyhnutne pripadať ako povrchní lajdáci. Caro keď sa mu zdá, že respondenta úplne nechápe, nespýta sa ho znova, ale na 3 roky sa presťahuje do jeho okresu, aby lepšie nasal atmosféru. A tak ďalej.
Všetci ostatní knihu môžu brať ako trailer alebo reklamu na dve Carove životné diela, určite budete mať chuť (aj keď málokto odvahu) si ich po tomto prečítať.
What this does, more than anything, is make you appreciate the craft that Caro puts into his work. Most of these essays, interviews, and passages were printed elsewhere and have been collected into this short volume. Some are original to the book, though. He is also driven by a force which he isn't even able to identify to flesh out the lives, locales, and intricacies surrounding his subjects.
Caro has written five biographies, not including this slim volume. Four are about Lyndon Johnson (he's working on the fifth) and the first about Robert Moses. With each he extensively researches, interviews, travels, and sometimes lives around the people that influenced his subjects. He is dogged, untiring, and he has a very understanding wife.
In this, you learn about his process, which is defined most simply by some advice he received as a young reporter, "turn every page." As much as Caro and his research assistant (that same understanding wife) are able to, he sticks to this advice. He also writes in longhand, then typewriter, he outlines extensively (LBJ's book five has a 27 page outline), has notebooks for each book chapter, and walks to work every morning dressed in a suit and tie to prove to himself that, though he doesn't have deadlines, he is going to work. When he interviews, asks the same question over and over, over several interviews, until new details emerge. "What did you see?" "What did you hear?" He also remembers to be silent, to let the silence grow, so his interviewee fills that silence with information. When he struggles to stay quiet, he writes in his reporter's notebook "SU" for shut up.
I'm not sure much of this is helpful to the average writer, but it does illuminate the man more than one would expect. We find that as driven as his two subjects are, he is just as driven, by what? To illuminate political power, to teach us how it works, to expose the pieces so that we become better informed. Also to appreciate that, however destructive political genius can be (displacing half a million low income people in New York City, Vietnam), it can also build (civil rights, highways, parks, healthcare, etc.)
As someone who has not read Caro's biographies, I enjoyed this book. It makes me want to read what he's put his life's efforts into. It is a bit repetitive in some places, likely due to it being piecemeal interviews, articles, essays, etc., but it is worth a look.
"The more we understand the realities of the political process, the better informed our votes will be. And then, presumably, in some very diffuse, very inchoate way, the better our country will be."
"Really, my books are an examination of what power does to people." "...What power always does is reveal...."
"In my defense: while I am aware that there is no Truth, no objective truth, no single truth, no truth simple or unsimple, either....there are Facts, objective facts, discernible and verifiable. And the more facts you accumulate, the close you come to whatever truth there is."
For Caro, this is a remarkably thin book. He said he wrote it to get down few thoughts on his researching and writing process before he died. The truth is, about half the book is made up of previously published magazine articles, many of which themselves trod over territory from his books, and much of the remainder was just published in a New Yorker article. I imagine the impetus for the book might have been financial.
Still, Caro is a wonderful writer, and it's fascinating to get a glimpse of his work habits. He explains his inner compulsion, and it is a real compulsion, to research every possible question and angle before writing. He explains his habits of interviewing the same people numerous times, and constantly pushing them to tell him "what you saw" and "what you heard," so he can provide a real lived experience of historic moments to the reader. He explains how he would walk the same path as Lyndon Johnson would walk to work as a young congressional aide, but he could never understand why Johnson would break into a run starting at the Capitol. Then, he decided to do the walk at daybreak, the same time Johnson would have done it, and he saw that the entire East Side of the Capitol was covered with a marvelous light, reflecting off the marble and almost burning anyone who stood near it. Even though Caro eschews "psychohistory," he said he now began to understand what Johnson was feeling at those moments. He also explains to the reader great moments in serendipitous discoveries, such as when the sister and best friend of Lyndon Johnson's most beloved mistress, Alice Marsh, came to tell him that "We've read the Power Broker, so we know you're going to find out about Alice," even though he had no clue who she was. Yet Alice Marsh turned out to be crucial to understanding Johnson's changing political and personal habits, down to his more professional and elegant clothing, in the 1940s and '50s.
For non-Caro fanatics, this book is probably too detailed and abstruse. For true-believers, among whom I include myself, it walks over too much old territory. Yet, for true-believers, almost anything he writes has enough nuggets of wisdom and truth to be worth the price of admission. This book is no exception.
At first I was disappointed with the way this book was going. Caro seemed to be re-hashing scenes from his biographies with some first person commentary thrown in. TELL ME HOW TO BE A GREAT WRITER, I wanted to shout. Give me the key! Tell me the secret! Do all the legwork so I can take the credit! Etc., etc.
This is not a how-to book. Think of it as a director's cut. A compendium of extra interviews that come at the end of a movie. Framed this way, I was able to see more clearly the genius of what Caro accomplished. He's telling a story about why it matters that he was so persistent in tracking down people to interview, why he spent years, nay decades, flipping through documents. It was all means to a greater end: to have foundation to write with authority, to place the reader in the scene, to allow the reader to experience what the protagonist was going through. A novelist does this through imagination, Caro had to do it through research. He couldn't make it up. In order to write biographies that read like novels he had to do decades of research. This book won't explain in great detail how to do all that work, but it will inspire a respect for that legwork that could very well encourage others to take up the challenge themselves.
You'll have to have read Caro's biographies to really appreciate what he's offering here.
I was so excited for this book. So looking forward to reading more of Caro's beautiful, distinctive writing. He intends to write a Caro-length memoir - and candidly acknowledges that this short book exists in case he runs out of time. I could have read another thousand pages of his methods and anecdotes.
I'm a working historian. I loved his stories of finding buried treasure, convincing a reluctant source to talk, the feeling you get when you figure out how to communicate something to your audience - to show and not to tell.
Caro's books have brought me much joy over the past 20 some years. This was no exception. I hope he has many more ahead.
One piece of advice on managing expectations: if you've read the New Yorker article, you've read a significant excerpt from the book. And at least one existing interview is included. Some of the new and old overlap. But the parts that were new were pure magic and expertly told.
Summary: Less a full biographical memoir than a description of the author's methods of researching material for his books, writing them, and the question that has driven his work.
It seems that I have been reading one of Robert A. Caro's books from time to time since I moved to my current home town nearly thirty years ago. He has been writing them even longer. The four volumes in print of his Years of Lyndon Johnson. His massive The Power Broker on the life and pervasive influence of Robert Moses on the city of New York and Long Island to this day. He is currently at work finishing the fifth, and hopefully final, volume on the presidency and post-presidency of Lyndon Johnson. He has won two Pulitzer Prizes, one for his work on Robert Moses, and one for one of the Johnson volumes, and just about every other major book award.
In contrast to his massive volumes, Working is a thin and pithy piece of writing in which Carol describes his process, and the question that has driven all his work. From his days as an investigative reporter for Newsday, he had a passion for discovering and explaining to people how things worked in government. That led to the realization that to explain this, you had to understand how power worked. Robert Moses, a figure who never held elective office and yet who probably displaced a half million people for his freeway projects through New York, who created parks for the people of the city and roads to connect them, taught him how power worked. Then to understand the exercise of political power by elected officials, he set his sights on Lyndon Johnson, who rose from the hill country of west Texas to the White House. Along the way, he gained a mastery of legislative processes and control over the Senate and his party that has not been seen before or since.
Such figures do not give up their secrets easily, if at all. Much of Caro's books describe his exhaustive research methods, driven by his curiosity and instincts to get the whole story. One of his early mentors told him to "turn every page." As he did this with Johnson, he discovered a notable change of pattern in the young congressman courteously seeking favor of others, to those others, even senior figures, seeking his attention. More careful page turning isolates the turning point to October 1940. More sleuthing in files pulled out of his House archives uncovered correspondence that indicated he had become the conduit for major campaign donations from a Texas fir, Brown and Root. And so Johnson began to accumulate power.
Part of his research was to see the things of which he was writing, and invite those who he was interviewing to the site of events to describe not only what happened but to describe the scene so he could see it. Soon, memories would flow, and Caro, could then write about events so that his readers could see them. To understand Johnson's youth and gain the trust of area residents he wanted to interview, he and his wife Ina moved to the Hill Country of Johnson's youth for several years. He describes movingly what it was like for Rebekah Johnson, Lyndon's mother, to live in a house out of sight of any others as night fell on the Hill Country.
He describes his determination to get to the bottom of the question of whether Johnson stole his 1948 election to the Senate, won by a razor thin margin with the ballots of "Box 13" in Jim Wells County. His research took him to Luis Salas, who he tracked for years, who finally entrusted him with a manuscript that provided the evidence that the election had indeed been stolen. He recounts in interviews the times he "had the story" and yet sensed there was more and dared to ask one more question, and discovered there was more.
In addition to describing how he researched, how he interviewed, recounting a number of those interviews, he describes his writing process. Someone has said there is no good writing, only re-writing. Caro is proof of that, moving from longhand manuscripts to typewritten copy marked up and re-typed, to corrections throughout the publishing process. He admits he would re-write the finished books if he could.
And now I understood how it has taken him fifty years to write those books, and still not be done with Johnson. He gives us an inside glimpse into what it takes to create these magisterial works: curiosity, diligence in the archives, dogged persistence in the interviews, working and re-working the material to get it right.
With investigative journalism struggling for its life, I concluded the book wondering whether I was reading the narrative of some of the last of a breed. It seems this is an important question because of the larger vision that drives Caro. The book ends with a 2016 interview in The Paris Review. The interviewer has observed that Caro hopes "the books serve a larger civic purpose." Caro replies:
Well, you always hope something. OI think the more light that can be thrown on the actual processes we're voting about, the better. We live in a democracy, so ultimately, even despite a Robert Moses, a lot of political power comes from our votes. The more we understand about the realities of the political process, the better informed our votes will be. And then, presumably, in some very diffuse, very inchoate way, the better our country will be.
We need investigators like Caro to throw light on processes. Will we find ways to continue to mentor and support them and offer them platforms from which to shine their light? And when they do, will we pay them any heed? One thing Caro is right about. Our democracy depends on it.
Truly fascinating. Caro gives some biographical details, some insight into his writing process, and some anecdotes about how and why he collected so many anecdotes and insights! His words about the women of the hill country toiling to bring water to their families were incredibly moving.
I found Caro humble and insightful. I am grateful for the countless ways in which he gave his life to us, his readers. He was almost apologetic for the personal compulsions that drove him to be so thorough. But it sure seems to me that this is the secret to great writing—not that his words about rhythm and other literary devices are valueless. The secret, though, is tunneling into something so that you come out with treasures your readers don't have, that they wouldn't have without your work.
I just went ahead and used all my Audible credits to get the remaining volumes of his LBJ biography. I am literally praying that he survives to write the last one! I hope to read it!
"Rhythm matters. Mood matters. Sense of place matters. All these things we talk about with novels, yet I feel that for history or biography to accomplish what they should accomplish, they have to pay as much attention to these devices as novels do." p 193 of Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing
Having read 5 of Caro's works - The Power Broker and the 4 LBJ volumes - I hesitated to give this book a 5 simply because of its length. It didn't have that deeply satisfying feeling of sinking into a different time and place, of glimpsing the mind and intentions of others, of brilliant storytelling which characterizes Caro's work. That being said it did a great job of doing what it set out to do - giving us a taste of what a full memoir might be like. With volume 5 on LBJ still a couple of years out, Caro wanted to put out a short work on his process in case he doesn't have time to write a full memoir. Let's hope he does have the time for both.
If you've never read Caro, this will give you a taste of what is work is like and what goes into it. But beware, you may not stop at one book.
I have grown up reading Robert Caro. This is both a great introduction to Caro and a great extra if you’ve read the Moses and Johnson bios. He does a great job of explaining how he works. Fascinating and fun.
This was disappointing. I could explain in more detail but am reluctant to do so for fear of discouraging others from reading a book where they may find insight that I have missed, or strike a chord of resonance where I landed flat.
Such a treat to hear this in his voice. Much reused material but I hadn’t read what is here republished, and, damn it, the man has demands on his time! Some dramatic turning points with great stories attached. Particularly memorable as to his formative years and method are his big break in investigative journalism after being written off as an Ivy League know-nothing, his resignation from the position of speechwriter after witnessing firsthand the racism of his erstwhile political boss, and the revelation that he needed to show not just the decisions of the powerful but their human impact on the (relatively) powerless — passages which in his books can bring you to tears. The stories of the tradecraft of research and interviewing are surprisingly thrilling — like Luiz Sales, instrumental to the “Box 13” scandal of 1948, getting his memoir out of a storage chest. It would have been great to see more on Caro’s wife and co-collaborator Ina. Ultimately, the explanation of why Caro has spent his mature decades as he has is essentially that he was too intellectually honest to accept bad explanations for things people fundamentally did not understand (how did Moses accrue his power? how did Johnson go from Hill Country to Capitol Hill? why was the first meaningful Civil Rights bill since Reconstruction passed under Johnson?). He was driven to understand and then artfully show (“I would have edited the finished books if I could”) the ways things really work (shades of von Ranke’s “Geschichte wie es eigentlich Gewesen”). His rigour is the product not of choice but of a compulsive urge to sketch the richness of events and their consequences in ever finer shades and gradations until Knopf pulls the pencil out of his hand. This is Caro’s account. Still, it would be interesting to go one step deeper into what he thinks the impact of studying history can be or should be, and what he makes of having spent his life in this most unusual way. He touches on this only briefly in closing.
Caro is amazing. I limit myself to one book of his a year to remind myself just how special he is. This collection is an overview in his process of creating masterpieces and I found it insightful. Although tempting as it’s bite-sized I don’t recommend starting here for Caro, this is better appreciated after reading a couple full books first to see what his method produces.
“I never thought of my books as Robert Moses & Lyndon Johnson. I thought of writing biographies as means of illuminating the time of the men I’m writing about and the great forces that molded those times.”
I’m not sure if I couldn’t put this book down because I had the deadline of a book report looming over my shoulder or because I actually was intrigued by the book, but I never thought I’d be glad I read about the biographer of LBJ and Robert Moses.
It was very interesting and informative, especially about Caro’s writing process, though it was kind of redundant at times.
However some parts—like the interview with Sam Houston Johnson in his childhood home—really did give me chills. Caro gave a spotlight to the emotional aspects of his job in a way that was beautifully written, documenting frustration, success, and a desire to cry for those he wrote about.
Definitely a good book to read if you’re interested in viewing history/biographical writing/journalism through a new lens. Though I will say I am guilty of judging a book by its cover and I wouldn’t have picked up this book had it not been required for a class…
Winning a Pulitzer prize is a big deal for writers. Winning two is outstanding. Scarfing up two for the first four books you write, of a total of five, is huge. In Robert A. Caro's case, he has written his sixth book, a much different deal than his first five. "Working" is brief, personal, insightful and quite well written, a Caro hallmark. In it, he describes his larger goal, beyond simple biography. For his legion of fans, he has met his goal and more: those who read about Robert Moses learned about over 40 years in the history of New York, city and state. Those who read any of the Lyndon Johnson books learned about America through 60 years, and especially the mind-boggling changes Johnson effected during the 60s. He changed the country and the world.
Caro's interest, beyond the fascinating personalities he writes about, has been the acquisition and use of power. For those who lack the interest, attention span or time to bask in the incendiary light of the Moses or Johnson books, "Working" could serve as a crib sheet. At 207 pages it won't kill a time budget and if one hasn't read the books it won't make a difference. Caro sets the hook and pulls you along. Be careful, however. You could wind up buried in "The Power Broker" or consumed by the four Johnson volumes, eagerly awaiting number five like the rest of us.