It was 1982 and the Earth was a bit cooler than it is now. My best friends and I were just off the boat docked in New York Harbor and were beginning to spend even more of our time thinking and talking about books. William Shawn and Roger Straus (the elder) and Sonny Mehta hadn't arrived in New York City yet.
And the first volume of Robert Caro's biography of Lyndon Johnson was published.
I was remembering this when I read the cover story of this past Sunday's New York Times magazine, Robert Caro’s Big Dig.
I was remembering the experience I had reading that book, a full body immersive experience that was just like when I first read A Wrinkle in Time or Tristram Shandy or Proust or, especially, Moby Dick. I remember drinking every single word of it almost in one enourmous gulp that, were the water not so sweet and my thirst for even more so powerful, it would have surely drown me. I remember reaching the end, feeling bereft, and then discovering pages and pages and pages of footnotes that were as riveting as what had come before it. Footnotes several paragraphs long. Totally smitten. The author was mad and I was mad for him.
My brother shared my enthusiasm. As our parents are from East Texas and our last name is Johnson and our formative years were spent watching the people effectively depose that president ... well, we were triangulated. And we already had a very good understanding that Johnson was almost invented by Shakespeare. Look up "tragic flaw" in Harmon's Handbook of Literature and the picture would be of Johnson. Instead of Shakespeare, Johnson earned Caro's biography and Caro is pursuing his White Whale across the waves.
My brother read the subsequent volumes and I could not, concerned that the second embrace wouldn't measure up to the first. Besides, I got it. I understood the story, the arc. My brother reports the rest of the work is as good as and maybe even better than the first volume. --Perhaps, some day, I'll get around to it.
In the mean time, if you are the type of person infatuated with words and want a "behind the scenes" story of the story, then I highly recommend the article in the Times. If you are the type of person who loves to read about the person engaged in an epic quest, then, again, I highly recommend the article. And if you are the type of person who admires the iconoclastic artist, the one who has a vision of something very particular -- and enormous -- and won't compromise one semicolon, then I highly recommend the article.