There is one way- and one way only- to read Robert Caro’s books. Of this, I am certain. For best results, gather provisions, find a nice room, lock yourself in, and turn off your cell phone. You must take all of these steps, not just a few. The reasons are:
- You must honor Caro’s dedication to political biography and investigative journalism with commensurate focus and single-mindedness.
You must eat and drink to keep your stamina as the books are long and complex.
You must be prepared to avoid all distractions- human or otherwise — and to call in sick to work- as you will not want to put the books down, even during bathroom breaks.
If you don’t have the luxury to do this, simply pick up his latest book — short and readable — Working. When you read it, you’ll make sure you find the time to do the above. He’s that good.
I first heard of Robert Caro from Professor Robert Jensen at the University of Texas. Jensen had a copy of The Power Broker and for no clear reason I was intrigued so I asked him about it. He told me it was a brilliant book- brilliantly written- about Robert Moses, the megalomaniac who basically controlled (and segregated) New York City (even New York State) for 40 years despite occupying no elected office. I was further intrigued but admittedly cowed by the massive volume (we learn in Working that the original manuscript was 1,050,000 words while the final, edited version was only 700,000 words.)
More than a decade later, while sick and in bed (mimicking- partially- the conditions above) I read his four-volume biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson. I vividly remember the entire experience. As I recall, I feigned illness for two extra days so I could finish the books. I remember learning not only about LBJ and his decades as a power-broker and war-monger but also about the nature of power and the fragility of the political system, even in the United States. I also remember calling two friends with the “did you know…?” rhetorical questions you get when you read great history. What I remember the most however is my disbelief that any person could in one lifetime manage to compile such a wealth of contextual knowledge and to painstakingly lay it out over thousands of pages. No doubt, Caro is not alone here. Taylor Branch — with this magisterial work on MLK and the Civil Rights Years — is up there and neither of these gentlemen holds a candle to people like Marx and Lenin who, whatever your political feelings, must impress by the sheer volume of writing they produced. Candidly, Asimov comes to mind as does Chomsky.
But back to Caro. In Working, he gives us a glimpse into his motivations and methods. What follows is a masterclass on grit, research, methodology, charisma, and fact-seeking. No book on “work”- and to my great discredit I’ve ready many — comes close to Caro’s. His tiring relentlessness, his drives down every avenue that could yield facts or insights, his dogged persistence in reading hundreds of thousands of pages in archives (with the help and partnership of his wife Ina), his desire to understand not only the “lives of great men” but the “human cost” of these lives, his willingness to court poverty in exchange for facts — all of these jump off the pages and inspire far more than any cliché-ridden business books written as vanity projects for tech billionaires.
This brings me to the main point of this short piece. We should all strive to be a little more like Robert Caro. We live in a world of partial thoughts backed by little data. We live in a world of short-form communication and even laud content that “disappears.” While we believe we think independently, we have replaced the old demagogues with new ones. A teenager recently told me that “we don’t read….books!” (His emphasis) This is what we’ve wrought.
But can we honestly say that we are using our abilities for the furtherance of human happiness or the uplift of society? Can we honestly say we are okay with the current state of affairs?
Working teaches us what could be if we put our collective intelligence to good use. Working reminds us that real information matters and that we must be tireless in seeking it out. Working reminds us, in Caro’s own words, that while
[T]here 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. And finding facts- through reading documents or through interviewing and re-interviewing — can’t be rushed; it takes time. Truth takes time.”
Are we willing to give the time to things that matter? That is Caro’s question for all of us.
Romi Mahajan in an Author, Marketer, Investor, and Activist
Originally published in Medium