Wednesday, May 16, 2012


May 16, 2012:

     "Another damned, thick, square book! Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh! Mr. Gibbon?"

     So said the 1st Duke of Gloucester to Edward Gibbon when presented with another volume of his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. And now here is Robert Caro with the fourth volume of his life and times of Lyndon Johnson, and it runs to 714 pages. It will take weeks to read-- no, months; I have a busy life of my own to live, lots of work to do, which requires its own reading, and once in a while I like to go to the movies. Then there's the thinking. I am one of those people who sits down with a notebook and thinks, taking notes as things occur to me. Occasionally I have a genuine insight. A book like Caro's leaves no time for idle thought.

     I read Gibbon's Autobiography some years ago, but I never tackled the Decline and Fall. It seemed so much like a life's work, that once you had read it you would have to read about it, read Tacitus and Livy and Polybius, in other words, for background, read other books about the late Empire for the sake of comparison, then read J. G. A. Pocock's current three-volume project (so far) on the significance of Gibbon's book for Enlightenment studies, become a classics scholar, in short--well, definitely not in short--in order to appreciate it fully. I hesitate generally to read really long books. It may come as a shock to those who consider me well-read, but I have not read War and Peace, nor Paradise Lost, nor Joyce's Ulysses all the way through, nor Gravity's Rainbow, nor David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. I did once read Leon Edel's five-volume biography of Henry James, but that was when I was studying Henry James in grad school. Generally I find really long books off-putting. Who has the time? How interested am I in the subject? And Caro's is more than a really long book. It is, or promises to be, five really long books, all featuring a history I lived through, and about a President I followed in the press at the time. How much more do I need to know?

     When Caro's third volume on Johnson came out ten years ago I was a judge of the non-fiction panel of the National Book Awards and I remember when it came in the house, along with the 400 other books that publishers had nominated that year for the non-fiction award, and I blanched. Four hundred books, and the most prestigious, the most watched, was Caro's, and it was 800? 900? pages long. To be a judge is a mostly honorary position; you do get paid, but very little, for going through 400 books. It's obvious you can't read them all. We didn't. You become expert at making decisions about books within a page or two. But you couldn't toss Caro aside that way. Caro was clearly writing an American epic, he was important, he was a genuine candidate for the award. One of the judges, I remember, complained that the book was too heavy to read in bed and wanted to reject it for that reason. I suspect that judge had other reasons as well, but there it was: too big, too clumsy; another damned, thick, square book.

     But it was also mesmerizing. I read half the book, which I really didn't have time to do, and learned more about the U. S. Senate and the exercise of power within the Senate than I could have learned in years of reading other histories. Caro is a great storyteller, and that's how he gets away with it. Even when you already know the outcome you go on reading, not quite breathlessly but nearly so. He gets to the heart of American politics in all its messy ingloriousness, and he draws you in, seduces you, makes you forget who you are and what else you have to do. In the end I saw that what he was doing was comparable to what Henry Adams had done in his history of the administrations of Jefferson and Madison, which ran to nine volumes when he finished it; it was that grand, that powerful, that good. I cannot forget the first one hundred pages of Adams's book, which is a riveting physical description of the United States in 1800, the roads, or lack of them, the river transportation systems, the communications systems. It sounds dry, doesn't it? But in Adams's hands it's a masterpiece and is sometimes published as a separate book in its own right. So with Caro. His first book on Johnson spends an inordinate amount of time in the Texas hill country, where Johnson grew up, but it's extremely helpful to understanding Johnson. We all come out of a specific context. The hill country was Johnson's context. To understand him you have to understand the context.

     And it is American power politics that Caro is writing about. It's a subject we need to know much more fully. When I listen to my liberal friends, all of them idealists, all of them rather naive about politics and how it works and even more naive about the way the right thinks, and why, I wonder to myself, what would it take to educate them? If this sounds arrogant on my part, I can't help it. The five years I spent in local politics taught me a great deal; six months living in Oklahoma was a revelation. You don't know a swamp until you wade through it. If you want to drain it, you damn well better get your feet wet. It's not enough to sit around in a park near Wall Street and carry a sign. You get involved. Or else, like Caro, you wade into the archives, you read everything, every scribbled note, every memo; you talk to everybody you can find; and you come out of it knowing. If you want to understand American politics in depth, in other words, you have to get into it, or you have to read Caro.

     Caro had enemies on the National Book Award panel that year, but in the end all five of us voted for him. He's doing something truly unusual; he's writing the American epic of our time. Much of the best in America, and much of the worst, flows from Lyndon Johnson and his Presidency. You have to read Caro. He has the power to open eyes.