The Magic Binoculars: Robert Caro's Writing Secrets

The Magic Binoculars: Robert Caro's Writing Secrets

“Everything I’ve been writing is bullshit.” — Robert Caro

Robert Caro’s is the world’s greatest biographer. Like a treasure chest, his works are a window into a whole new world.

The Power Broker, written by Robert Caro is a first-rate examination of the political forces that shaped New York City. Heavier than the weights I use at the gym, Caro’s books take six months to read and a decade to write. His books are a marathon   —   a bigger time investment than most college courses.

And yet, David Halberstam called The Power Broker “the greatest book ever written about a city.” Barack Obama, who read The Power Broker when he was 22, hailed it as the most influential book he’s ever read.

Never, never, never in a million years did I think I would read a 1,200 page — 700,000-word — window into the politics of New York. But first-rate writing is seductive, no matter the topic. 

In a world of falling attention spans, how does Caro keep the attention of his readers?

 Robert Caro

Robert Caro


Scuba Diving with Caro

If Twitter is like dipping your toes in the water, reading Robert Caro is like full-on scuba diving. You can’t half-ass Caro. His books are too long. Too dense. You’re either all-in or all-out, and without a daily ritual, you won’t finish the book.

In The Power Broker, Caro exposes how raw, naked political power works in cities. It’s non-fiction that reads like fiction.

Caro’s famous for winding, snake-like tangents that veer from the main plot line. As you march through sentences and meander through paragraphs, you can see the characters, feel the tension, and hear the debates that shaped New York City. You feel like a fly on the wall. Caro includes detail after detail  —  down to the year and brand of Moses’ Egyptian gold tie clip  —  that any editor with their head on straight would have crossed out with a big bright red pen.

The Power Broker was a surprise success. Here’s Caro:

“For seven years, I heard people say — I heard my first publisher say — no one is going to read a book on Robert Moses. It will be a very small printing. And I believed that. But as I came to write the book, I thought, It matters that people read this. Here was a guy who was never elected to anything, and he had more power than any mayor, more than any governor, more than any mayor or governor combined, and he kept this power for forty-four years, and with it he shaped so much of our lives.”

As I poured and poured through The Power Broker, I discovered how Caro writes world-class biographies.


See the Scene

Next time you’re in New York, look up and around. You’ll see Robert Moses’ canvas. The bridges, tunnels, and highways are his paintings. Nuts, bolts, and concrete are his paintbrush. Psychedelic in their intensity, Caro’s descriptions will turn your hard eyes starry.

Caro is stiff under the public eye. In interviews, where he reveals the secrets of biography, Caro offers writing advice in a taut, careful manner:

“You have to ask yourself, Are you making the reader see the scene? And that means, Can you see the scene? You look at so many books, and it seems like all the writer cares about is getting the facts in. But the facts alone aren’t enough.”

Clad in suit and tie, Caro writes in solitude. His writing practice resists the pull of technology and the allure of efficiency. Caro writes with pen and paper. He cuts and pastes  —  not with savvy keyboard shortcuts  —   but with scissors and tape. Only recently did he purchase his first computer and he still doesn’t have an email address. As the kids say, he’s “old school.” Early drafts are handwritten on legal pads. For later drafts, Caro switches to a typewriter. 

 Robert Caro

Robert Caro

Caro begins each book with a written statement of its narrative arc. Then, he opens his matte black, loose-leaf notebook and writes a detailed outline. As Caro’s ballpoint pen meets his white narrow-lined legal pad, his scenes spring to life:

“If you let the reader see the place — if you do it well enough and have shown the character of your protagonist well enough, so that the reader can see the scene and be involved in the scene — then the reader can see things, sense things, understand things about your protagonist that the writer doesn’t have to tell him, that the reader can grasp for himself. When you’re in a place, it evokes emotions in you.”

Caro defies the limits of the written word. Marshall McLuhan once described the written word as abstract and emotionless. But in The Power Broker, the words are alive. Dancing across the page, words twinkle like stars on a cool winter evening. 

As you read The Power Broker, you can see the geography of New York in Gingerbread detail:

“[Moses] changed the course of rivers, filling in the beds of the Harlem and the Bronx and cutting new channels for them, shoving to one side the mighty St. Lawrence, making new curves in the swift Niagara. He filled in the city’s frayed edges, transforming into solid earth Great Kills on Stated Island, the Flushing Meadows in Queens, a dozen other vast marshes. Nature gave the region one shoreline; he gave it another, closing inlets in the barrier beaches, creating new insets, reshaping miles of beach dunes. For mile after mile, the earth and rock that constitute the shoreline of Brooklyn and Queens, and of Manhattan’s Hudson shore, are his, the cement and steel that hold them in place are his, the grass and shrubs and trees that adorn them are his — as are the concrete and steel of the marinas, the shoreline overlooks, the parking fields, the bicycle paths, the runways and airport terminals, and, of course, the shoreline parkways. Not nature, but he put them there…. Robert Moses believed his works would make his name immortal and he may have well been right.”

The stage has been set. The King of Gotham has been crowned. Here’s New York — grand, sprawling, and magnificent — and here’s Robert Moses, The Power Broker’s all powerful, bigger-than-life protagonist. 

America’s greatest road-builder began his career at a time when not a single American city possessed a budget. Nobody  —  nobody  —   influenced American cities in the 20th century more than Robert Moses. Through a process of alchemy, Moses translated dreams into concrete, asphalt, and steel. He was directly in charge of $26 billion worth of public works, a figure which no other urban public official comes close. Moses shaped American expressways more than any single individual. Most public officials made recommendations; Mr. Moses made laws; most public officials outlined their dreams; Mr. Moses bragged about his accomplishments. Simply put: Mr. Moses “Got Things Done.”

 Robert Moses

Robert Moses

Caro describes the voluminous figure as such:

“Mr. Moses started pacing, almost like a caged tiger…. When he heard a report of some delay or obstacle, the big powerful face would turn pale, almost white, and a wave of purple, rising up the thick neck, would sweep across it.”

“His physical presence and vitality as he stood, head thrown back, teeth gleaming in his dark face, handsome, charming, physically overpowering his listeners… made him, as always, the focal point of the room… with an expression on his face that could only be described as enigmatic.”

Here, you can feel Moses’ iron-will. You can smell his sharp determination. You can see his eyes dilate in a gaze of fury. Rather than describing Moses as stubborn, aggressive and arrogant, Caro uses phrases like “caged tiger,” “thick neck,” and “wave of purple.” We see the scene with 20/20 vision. 

Caro’s description of George Gleason, a newspaper writer, radiates with similar intensity:

“Big, brawny and boisterous, with a cooked Irish grin and a nose that must have been broken at least once in his thirty-two years, he looked the part — complete to the collar of his trench coat, which was invariably turned up. And he acted it. Hard drinking, he talked loudly in barrooms about the big stories he was working on, the big men he was going to unmask…”

Clear as day. In true Caro fashion, each description is vivid enough to paint an image in the reader’s mind, yet abstract enough for the reader to experience the scene in their own, individual way. Readers see Moses in vivid detail without having to slog through mundane facts or endless, rambling lectures. 


 Robert Caro

Robert Caro

Interviews

As he composed The Power Broker, Robert Caro conducted 522 interviews. The search for detail begins in the interview process:

“So you keep saying, What would I see? Sometimes these people get ­angry because I’m asking the same question over and over again. If you just keep doing it, it’s amazing what comes out of people.”

By asking the same question over and over again, each time from a slightly different angle, Caro cuts through the camouflage and adds texture to the scene. One layer at a time, he unlocks forgotten memories. 

Sometimes, when the quotes are particularly jarring, Caro inserts them directly into the text. During one interview with Caro, a victim of eminent domain described his dilapidated home like this:

“My son Stephen — he’s six — is in the hospital. A rat bit him in the eyes. I tried to fix the rat holes here, but the rat cut right through. I complained but no one did anything to fix them… I have no water, hot or cold… the bathroom ceiling is falling down… rats all over the building… sewers backing up… dumbwaiter packed with garbage… cellar flooded.”

From the gross to the miraculous, Caro writes with visual intensity. Readers can see, hear, and feel how power effects the powerless. Readers transcend the ordinary constraints of language and letters on a page, and experience these emotions first-hand. When I read this paragraph, I feel my nose wrinkle, my nostrils compress, and a recurrent pang of disgust trickle down my tense forearms. These weren’t ordinary rats. No. These rats were big enough to wear saddles. And after writing about these four-legged monsters, I’ll close my eyes tonight with a little extra suspense.

Woof.

Most biographers give you fact after fact. Caro gives you image after image.¹ Most non-fiction is a stoic, firehose of information. But Caro eschews the conventions of non-fiction. Instead, he borrows the lessons of Tolstoy, Fitzgerald and Vonnegut. 

 Robert Caro

Robert Caro


The Magic Binoculars

Facts alone aren’t enough. They’re too black-and-white. Readers yearn for images and anecdotes that make the information pop. For facts to stick in the reader’s mind, they must be enriched by colorful stories.² Aided by subtle visuals and roller coaster narratives, Caro brings his biographies to life.

That’s Robert Caro’s secret: he unlocks the electricity of sight. 

That’s why he shines. That’s why he’s a Pulitzer Prize Winner. That’s why Robert Caro is the most celebrated biographer of all-time.

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Footnotes

¹ After finishing this blog post, I went straight to Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon B. Johnson. As Caro describes Hill Country, Texas, he’s wearing the Magic Binoculars:

“Beneath the trees, the whole country was carpeted with wildflowers, in the Spring, bluebonnets, buttercups, the gold-and-burgundy Indian paintbrush in the white-flowered wild plum, in Fall, the goldeneye, in the goldenmane, and in the golden evening primrose. And in the fall the sugar maples and sumac blazed red in the valleys.

Spring gushed out of the hillsides, and streams ran through the hills – springs that form deep, cold holes, streams that raced cool and clear over gravel and sand and white rock, streams lined so thickly with willows and sycamores and tall cypresses that they seemed that they seemed to be running through a shadowy tunnel of dark leaves. The streams had cut the hills into thousand shapes: after crossing 250 miles of flat sameness, these men had suddenly found a landscape that was new at every turn.”

² David McCollough, another famous biographer made a similar observation.

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