April 14, 2012


The Big Book : Robert Caro has spent thirty-eight years writing the biography of one man. The fourth volume of that work, like its three predecessors a giant achievement and certain best seller, is about to be published. But Caro is not done. The world and all that's in it has changed, and still Caro is not done. Time has eaten everything around him, and still he is not done. But until he is done, one part of the world that we will never see again will not die.  (Chris Jones, May 2012, Esquire)

This room is almost a temple to timelessness. Caro has worked with the same set of tools since 1966, when he began his first book, The Power Broker, his definitive 1,162-page biography of Robert Moses, the controversial New York planner and builder. For so many writers, for most of them, The Power Broker, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1975, would represent their crowning achievement; for Caro, it was just the beginning. Back then, he and his wife, Ina, lived in a pretty little house in Roslyn, Long Island -- he was a reporter at Newsday -- and one of the great crumbling neighboring estates had a fire sale. Caro went. He bought a chess set, and he bought a lamp. The lamp was bronze and heavy and sculpted, a chariot rider pulled along by two rearing horses. "It cost seventy-five dollars," Caro remembers. The chess set is hidden away under a couch in their apartment on Central Park West. The lamp is here on his desk, spilling light onto his galleys. Except for a brief period when he couldn't afford an office, when Caro worked instead in the Allen Room at the New York Public Library, he has written every word of every one of his books in the same warm lamplight, millions of words under the watch of that chariot rider and his two horses.

"Nobody believes this, but I write very fast," he says.

Before he writes, however, he sits at his desk, and he looks out his window at the glass building across the street, and he thinks about what each of his books is to become. In those quiet moments, he remembers the words of one of his professors from when Caro was a young man at Princeton, studying literature. The professor was the critic and poet R. P. Blackmur, and Caro, who always wrote his assignments in a hurry, under the pressure of deadline, and who usually received good grades for his rushed work, thought he had fooled him. Blackmur was not fooled: "You're not going to achieve what you want to achieve, Mr. Caro, unless you stop thinking with your fingers," the poet said.

So Caro knits together his fingers until he knows what his book is about. Once he is certain, he will write one or two paragraphs -- he aims for one, but he usually writes two, a consistent Caro math -- that capture his ambitions. Those two paragraphs will be his guide for as long as he's working on the book. Whenever he feels lost, whenever he finds himself buried in his research or dropping the thread -- over the course of ten years, a man can become a different man entirely -- he can read those two paragraphs back to himself and find anchor again.
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Posted by at April 14, 2012 7:22 AM

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