Monday, May 14, 2012
The Passage of Power
I don't have a lot to say about the long-awaited fourth volume in Robert Caro's spectacular biography of Lyndon B. Johnson--well I do, actually, but not in terms of anything the book reviewers haven't covered. But it was as delicious a project as the first three volumes and I am extremely grateful to have once again been a part of publishing history by narrating this profoundly interesting and stimulating book. Members of the official Grover Gardner Fan Club (who number in the single digits and meet once a decade to share dull stories, bad jokes and dirty martinis) will recall that I narrated the three previous volumes in this series. Volumes 1 and 2 are currently OOP in audio, though I recently got some tanatalizingly vague correspondence to the effect that this situation might be corrected. Volume 3, Master of the Senate, is going strong (and stronger now) on Audible, and the current volume is assured a spot on the best-seller list for some time to come. Suffice it to say that if you have an interest in American history and politics and have not read these extraordinary books, wait no longer. It helps to read them in order but it's not a pre-requisite.
Caro is a brilliant, dramatic, propulsive writer and these come as close to "true-life" political thrillers as anything you care to name. He also writes the longest sentences this side of Faulkner, and the twenty-five year gap between the first volume and the current one has taken a not-unexpected toll on this narrator's ability to negotiate paragraph-length stretches between periods without resorting to supplementary oxygen. A typical sentence might go something like this:
Johnson knew he couldn't simply ask for the money; he knew he had to wheedle, cajole, prevaricate ("simply lie," as one long-time associate confirmed--"Lyndon just couldn't bear the thought of begging, it was anathema to him...") in order to obtain the funds that were not just necessary, not just critical to his campaign, but were a matter of life and death if he were to ever obtain the dream--the dream that had driven him since his teenage years, the dream that, in the words of another former assistant, "drove him relentlessly night and day, like a whipped horse dragging an overloaded cart"--of one day achieving, on his own and without anyone standing in the way, the highest office in the land, the office of President of the United States.
Okay, I made that up, but it's pretty close. Caro has a unique, sometimes hammering style that can seem overly dramatic, unless you commit to it and make it work. He employs a wealth of literary devices to drive home his points, and huge parenthetical digressions are nothing to him. It's his way of packing tremendous amounts of information into the text, as well as ramping up the tension in critical circumstances.
I'll leave it at that for the moment, but there's a larger point I wanted to make, one that will become apparent to you if you read this wonderful, moving profile from Esquire magazine. Recently there's been a lot of talk about the future of the publishing industry--self-publishing, e-books, predatory pricing, law suits, and so forth. There's a sense that the industry is in crisis, and that the old publishing models are dying out. I fully believe that there's all sorts of room for new publishing models. But I want you to read that profile I linked to, and ask yourself if the new models would accomodate the sort of majesterial project that continues to pour from the pens of people like Robert Caro. I recently argued as much in the comment section of some blog or other, and one person responded, "Hey, let him raise money on Kickstart!" Can't you just see it? Young Robert Caro raising money for a forty-year biography project on Kickstart! Some sample entries from his blog, lbjgenius.blogspot.com:
June 7, 1973--Raised $10K on Kickstart for my first interview!! Flew to Texas to interview Lady Bird but she wouldn't see me. WTF??? Maybe I can ask someone at the LBJ Library to let me look at some documents while I'm here, so I don't waste the plane fare...
February 20, 1974--Got another $2K on Kickstart to buy some supplies and a typewriter, and keep the landlord happy for another month. Bus fare to California was pricey, but got some great interviews. Maybe good for a chapter or two. Slow going, though. Will probably have to get a part-time job to keep the proverbial wolf from the door. Wife sick of sardines and crackers...
August 12, 1976--Yea!! Another $5K from Kickstart. Able to make three trips to interview former Dems in WV! Three whole hours of research, can't wait to craft another chapter!
You get the idea. If publishing as we know it dies, I fear for the fate of the sort of books that have changed lives, enriched minds and helped document the great events of our time.