At age 83, the iconic biographer takes time away from his work on the fifth volume of his acclaimed Lyndon Johnson biography to offer wisdom about researching and writing.
In sparkling prose, Caro (The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power, 2012, etc.)—who has won two Pulitzer Prizes, two National Book Awards, and three National Book Critics Circle Awards, among countless other honors—recounts his path from growing up sheltered in New York City to studying at Princeton, Harvard, and Columbia to unexpectedly becoming a newspaper reporter and deciding to devote his life to writing books. Thinking about his first book topic, he landed on developer Robert Moses, “the most powerful figure in New York City and New York State for more than forty years—more powerful than any mayor or any governor, or any mayor and governor combined.” After Caro received a book contract with a small advance from a publisher, he, his wife (and research assistant), Ina, and their son struggled to make ends meet as the project consumed about a decade, much longer than the author had anticipated. The book was more than 1,300 pages, and its surprising success gave Caro some financial stability. The author explains that he focused on Johnson next as an exemplar of how to wield political power on a national scale. Throughout the book, the author shares fascinating insights into his research process in archives; his information-gathering in the field, such as the Texas Hill Country; his interviewing techniques; his practice of writing the first draft longhand with pens and pencils; and his ability to think deeply about his material. Caro also offers numerous memorable anecdotes—e.g., how he verified rumors that Johnson became a senator in 1948 via illegal ballot counting in one rural county.
Caro’s skill as a biographer, master of compelling prose, appealing self-deprecation, and overall generous spirit shine through on every page.