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Book: Working By Robert A Caro

Book: Working By Robert A Caro
Working By Robert A Caro book cover

I’ve just finished reading Robert A Caro’s memoir Working, a brilliant read in its entirety. It is definitely one of my best reads this year. Highly recommended. Here are a few lessons I have learned from the book.

1) Our world is shaped by political power

Ours is an apolitical generation. We don’t merely dislike politics, we despise it and never wants to be part of it. This includes me. Our romantic idea of change is limited to our private initiatives. Unfortunately, these apolitical initiatives could create some small celebrities but could seldom bring any meaningful large scale change. Political power has been at the center of all kind of consequential change throughout history. Our lives are greatly shaped by political power within and beyond our understanding. Caro offers a glimpse into it in Working mostly through his books The Power Broker and h books on Lyndon Johnson.

“People are always asking me why I chose Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson to write about. Well, I must say I never thought of my books as the stories of Moses or Johnson. I never had the slightest interest in writing the life of a great man. From the very start I thought of writing biographies as a means of illuminating the times of the men I was writing about and the great forces that molded those times—particularly the force that is political power.

Why political power? Because political power shapes all of our lives. It shapes your life in little ways that you might not even think about. For example, when you’re driving up to the Triborough (now Robert F. Kennedy) Bridge in Manhattan in New York, you may notice that the People are always asking me why I chose Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson to write about. Well, I must say I never thought of my books as the stories of Moses or Johnson. I never had the slightest interest in writing the life of a great man. From the very start I thought of writing biographies as a means of illuminating the times of the men I was writing about and the great forces that molded those times—particularly the force that is political power.

Why political power? Because political power shapes all of our lives. It shapes your life in little ways that you might not even think about. For example, when you’re driving up to the Triborough (now Robert F. Kennedy) Bridge in Manhattan in New York, you may notice that the bridge comes down across the East River in Queens opposite 100th Street. So why do you have to drive all the way up from 100th Street to 125th Street to cross it, and then basically drive back, which adds almost three totally unnecessary miles to every journey across the bridge?

Well, the reason is political power.

2) Meaningful work takes blood, sweat, patience, sacrifices and a long time

Caro spent seven years writing his first book The Power Broker and those seven years were not easy.

WHEN I FIRST BEGAN The Power Broker in 1966, since we didn’t have any savings to speak of, and we had a son, and my advance was so small that I still needed a weekly paycheck, I convinced myself that I could write the book while continuing to work at Newsday. But that illusion didn’t last very long. I wasn’t making much progress on the book, hardly any progress at all. Then I heard about something called the Carnegie Fellowship in Journalism. They took one working journalist at a time and paid him his weekly salary for a year while he wrote a book. I wrote a letter of application, and I received the fellowship. I quit Newsday immediately and told Ina, “They’re paying me for a whole year and I have this outline, I’ll be done in nine months, and then we can finally go to France.” I had always met my newspaper deadlines. And my outline said I’d be done in nine months. At the end of the year, of course, still needed a weekly paycheck, I convinced myself that I could write the book while continuing to work at Newsday. But that illusion didn’t last very long. I wasn’t making much progress on the book, hardly any progress at all. Then I heard about something called the Carnegie Fellowship in Journalism. They took one working journalist at a time and paid him his weekly salary for a year while he wrote a book. I wrote a letter of application, and I received the fellowship. I quit Newsday immediately and told Ina, “They’re paying me for a whole year and I have this outline, I’ll be done in nine months, and then we can finally go to France.” I had always met my newspaper deadlines. And my outline said I’d be done in nine months. At the end of the year, of course, the book was barely started, and we were completely out of money.

For about the next four years money was a problem. As I’ve said, Ina sold our house in Roslyn, Long Island. We had talked about selling it but in my mind, we hadn’t finalized it. Ina finalized it. After the mortgage was paid back, we cleared about $25,000, which was enough to live on for a year, and we moved to an apartment in the Bronx that we really disliked. I went around and asked superintendents in the nearby buildings if they had a small room to rent as an office, and found a tiny one, a cinder-block room in a basement, for a little money. When I remember these years, it was a time of just getting by. We didn’t go out to eat much.

3) Meaningful work requires great support:

Throughout the ups and downs of his journey, Caro’s wife has been a rock for him.

“I hated being broke, having to worry about money all the time. (I didn’t know the half of it. It wasn’t until, in 1974, when, after I had been working on the book for seven years, The New Yorker bought four excerpts from The Power Broker that my wife, Ina, said, “Now I can go to the dry cleaners again.” I hadn’t realized—because she had never told me—that we had been unable to pay the bills at our local dry cleaners (or, I later learned, butcher shop) for so long that she had been doing her shopping in a more distant shopping area. (As, years earlier, we had moved to an apartment in Spuyten Duyvil in the Bronx after I came home one day to the house on Long Island that Ina loved, at a complete loss as to how to go on without a regular paycheck, to find her standing in the driveway to tell me, “We sold the house today.”)”

Ruhul Kader is a technology and business analyst based in Dhaka, Bangladesh. He is also the co-founder and CEO of Future Startup and author of Rethinking Failure: A short guide to living an entrepreneurial life. He writes about internet business, strategy, technology, technology policy, and society. He can be reached at [email protected]

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