Board index » GENERAL » Literary Corner

 


Post new topic Reply to topic
          
Author Message
PostPosted: Mon Nov 13, 2017 3:19 pm  |  Posted from: Australia
  

User avatar
Top Member
Top Member

Joined: Mon Feb 20, 2012 4:23 pm
Posts: 864
Topics: 110
Images: 0
Arcade Highscores: 0
Gender: Male
Age: 57
National Flag:
Australia
LBJ Political Biography

Robert Caro the US author and journalist has written 4 volumes of his LBJ biography and is, unless he dies, about to finish his 5th. He has been at it for 42 years writing the full life – not just the political life.

Its not for the faint hearted but is near universally acclaimed as was his previous bio of Moses - the 50’s and 60’s czar of NYC planning.

He has won all the awards that anyone could aspire to and his LBJ bio. is widely regarded the best political biography in a generation.

I found it hard to put down and have looked forward to each new volume – and I’m hard to please and put a lot of emphasis on a clear/artful/accessible writing style, thorough research and a balanced view.

Its strengths are also its weaknesses – detail. Unlike most professional biographers he has a deep understanding of how real power is gained and used/abused - and its rarely about just the office you hold. Whilst Caro might admire/be fascinated by LBJ its very far from uncritical. There is a focus on the machinery, mechanics, psychology and techniques of power, the great skills required to lead and direct this and just how complex politics is. It argues that whilst he was corrupt he was also, maybe, the greatest reformer since Lincoln and with a deep compassion for the poor – something lacking in current world political leaders.

What it tries to do is to get inside his character and personality – and all its flaws, strengths, contradictions and pain and it paints a vivid portrait of this – as Cromwell demanded of his own portrait – with warts and all.

In a certain way it illustrates in one man all that is worst and best in US politics. Current popular opinion gives much attention to Kennedy’s limited social policy achievements and forgets LBJ’s towering reforms over his limited 5 years because we aren’t smart and value glamour over boring truth and this book seeks to redress this.

Its weaknesses are a focus on personality and political relationships at the expense of economics, history, the power of big business and non-political power and culture – but it’s a bio and therefore more about the man than the broader context. It can’t be everything. The last volume will deal with the Vietnam war and I doubt that one volume will be enough to deal with that horror - and there will likely be criticism.

There has been criticism, particularly from the Johnson family, but also generally about his hard judgments and colorful language – arguable strengths often lacking in scholarly bios. Lunatics and conspiracy theorists don’t much like it so its probably not widely read in the Middle East or certain parts of the USA. I don’t imagine the Kennedy family likes it much because it documents how they humiliated him and Bobby Kennedy’s uncontrollable, and arguably unbalanced, hate of him. (I think that its time for a warts and all bio of Bobby).

If you need to believe history is black and white/good and bad then it’s probably not for you nor is it for you if you believe good things are done only by good people – or its opposite. Brexiteers may not like it because it says history and people are complex, results often different from intentions and politics is compromise, maneuver as well as leadership. One of LBJ’s weakness as a politician was his lack of populist media whoredom – now exhibited by modern Borises (sic.) and Trumps – so nowadays he might not get elected to anything and ‘maybe’ this is a bio. of an extinct specimen.

Interestingly its less appreciated in the UK than elsewhere and maybe that’s because it is warts and all – rather than Oxbridge coyness and avoidance of judgment – and is exhaustively detailed which throws its peers into stark contrast for being glib, uninquiring and lazy. Lord Skidelsky comes to mind. Other countries with hero worship traditions and ideological blindness, France for example, don’t much like it and places like Italy, with its dogmatic intelligentsia and fear of the ugly truth, ignore it.

There is no tradition of truthful and balanced biography in the Islamic world let alone a widespread belief that a clear understanding of their past might make their future better. My guess is that a bio. such as this in Egypt would be regarded as unpatriotic, most probably banned and its author exiled.

Caro has been successful and writes in such an effective way academics often stare, mutter and give it casual praise. They may also be envious. Senior professional politicians in the UK and USA however sing its praises as a truthful depiction of power and Bill Clinton wrote a positive magazine book review of it.

Modern politicians must be quaking at the prospect of another Caro coming along to ‘do them over’. Luckily for them such authors arrive only once a generation so their reputations are safe – for the time being.

Its relatively cheap in actual hard copy and, oddly, only available on CD, not electronic. They are heavy books even in paperback so physical delivery from Amazon won’t be cheap.

If you want a clear and readable, albeit dated historical, view of immense power/ego, it’s in a category of its own.

Here is what the author says:
“What I'm interested in is using those lives to show how political power works. Not the textbook variety — the textbook things we learn in high school and college — but how power really works, the raw, naked reality of political power. ... We live in a democracy, so basically power at the end comes from us, from the votes that we cast at the ballot box. So the more that we know about how political power really works the better — theoretically, at least — our votes should be and the better our democracy should be."

Another quote from Caro:
"We're taught Lord Acton's axiom: all power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. I believed that when I started these books, but I don't believe it's always true any more. Power doesn't always corrupt. Power can cleanse. What I believe is always true about power is that power always reveals. When you have enough power to do what you always wanted to do, then you see what the guy always wanted to do."

Pity more biographers and historians don’t think the same way. Pity more citizens aren’t interested how their votes are actually used. Pity that everyone forgot that Lord Acton never had any power, no-one who knew him who had any power ever offered him any, or many jobs - so his knowledge of power was very limited. If he had power his principles would have meant UK support of the South in the American Civil War. Therefore his view on the direction of history and his standards of morality were probably no more perceptive than his view/theory on power. Nevertheless we still stick to his ‘aphorism’ because it’s short, black and white and simple.

The last volume is likely to be out in the next 6 months but if you are interested I suggest you start at the beginning. Second hand copies might be available on Amazon, eBay or Abe.

Some references/reviews:
https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/02/book ... etnam.html
https://www.amazon.com/Path-Power-Years ... 0679729453
https://www.theparisreview.org/intervie ... obert-caro
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/book ... eview.html
http://www.economist.com/node/21554177


  Top                        
Reply with quote  
PostPosted: Tue Nov 14, 2017 1:51 pm  |  Posted from: United Kingdom
  

Member
Member

Joined: Sun Mar 06, 2011 8:33 am
Posts: 104
Topics: 1
Images: 0
Arcade Highscores: 0
Gender: None specified
Age: 55
Hafiz wrote:
They are heavy books even in paperback so physical delivery from Amazon won’t be cheap.

Spend more than a tenner on books and Amazon offer free postage. Doesn't matter how heavy they are.
Hafiz wrote:
Interestingly its less appreciated in the UK than elsewhere

Do you have any evidence for this faintly bizarre claim?

The UK Amazon site, for example, has 28 five-star reviews and 4 four-star reviews for the first volume (and nothing lower).


  Top                        
Reply with quote  
PostPosted: Tue Nov 21, 2017 4:39 am  |  Posted from: Australia
  

User avatar
Top Member
Top Member

Joined: Mon Feb 20, 2012 4:23 pm
Posts: 864
Topics: 110
Images: 0
Arcade Highscores: 0
Gender: Male
Age: 57
National Flag:
Australia
FarleyFlavors - I want to respond in detail because after your comments I worried that I had rushed to judgment based only on general impressions and intuition. I think I can now illustrate I’m on reasonable ground.

Yes. In general terms the academic journals minimize the review of his books. Its sometimes the case that success in history/biography by non-academics gets little academic positive attention - examples include Lord Norwich, Max Hastings and many others. If you are outside the sacred circle you are often on your own.

I’m not aware that he has ever been invited to lecture in any major UK university – although well paid offers are often made to second rate US based historians and political biographers. The LSE has reviewed one of his books with the Head of Department of Media and Film at the University of Wolverhampton doing it – maybe this is irony – or a joke. http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/lsereviewofbooks ... -of-power/ Generally the left don’t like him and bios of powerful white males aren’t fashionable in academic circles.

The London Intelligentsia grumble, which is odd because they don’t put an historian/biographer let alone a US expert to review him. Some examples:
Written by an academic ‘political moralist’ with no US/biography experience who disagrees with Caro’s moral compass:
https://www.lrb.co.uk/v34/n13/david-run ... it-earlier
Another example which complains about its length – written by an Africa specialist:
https://www.lrb.co.uk/v25/n06/rw-johnson/just-had-to
Another by a specialist on Sudanese and French history who doesn’t like monumental bios: https://www.lrb.co.uk/v05/n10/douglas-j ... ead-truman

I mention these because the LRB was/is the highest status review magazine in the UK. If the LRB doesn’t think you fashionable the left/center London intelligentsia knows not to buy you/and what to think – so there are consequences. The other bastion of the great and the good – the TLS – seems to take a positive approach which undercuts my argument - but I can’t be certain.

The positive London reviews have an unusual pattern because they are not written by the usual reviewers – or indeed people you expect to do reviews.

Unexpectedly The Guardian likes him but that’s because, unusually, they hired a specialist reviewer with relevant experience – who was also a US citizen – later appointed a US Assistant Secretary of State – and not the usual literary left polemicist. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2002/ ... ianreview5.

Surprisingly, The New Statesman likes him – probably because the reviewer is a successful senior professional Labour minister – not the normal wordsmith with an English/History degree and little else.

The Financial Times rave review wasn’t written by the normal literary/historical hack but by its Editor who is an industry leader, active in social mobility programs.

The Times also didn’t use a contractor but its editor who is now a politician – and probably always was one. Relevantly, he is also someone active in social mobility programs and born outside the Establishment.

Its relevant that ‘popular media’ London reviews weren’t done by usual low-pay review types but very senior people with relevant interests and experience who universally loved it. I speculate that if the usuals had done the job it would have produced a standard LRB result which fits in with that group’s thinking. So these, and The Economist, like him but ‘high brow’ left/academic people don’t. I need to add that I’m a big but cautious reader of the LRB.

Its impossible for me to know his actual UK sales but a 10 second search indicates few second hand Caro LBJ books available on the Internet from UK dealers – which suggests that few originally sold in the UK. BBC radio has on one or two occasions over the decades shown interest but not BBC TV – possibly because LBJ is hated by the old (now) silver haired anti-Vietnam left. So his promotional opportunities have been limited in the UK – but not in the US. In any event a few comments on Amazon from a few UK nationals don’t prove critical or academic success let alone large sales or much marketing reach.

A recent London interview by a not stupid, but right wing, journalist got close to why some might ignore him when the interviewer wrote: “In an era that favours concision to an almost pathological extent, work of this pace and scale is boldly counter-cultural. As a warning against the long haul, Oxford scholars often cite the example of the late Rohan Butler, whose 1,133-page monograph on the French 18th-century statesman and soldier Choiseul ends ominously: “The diplomatic and political career of the future Duke de Choiseul had begun.”https://www.standard.co.uk/lifestyle/london-life/robert-caro-power-reveals-and-not-always-for-the-better-a3104581.html. His view seems to nail the LRB position. Caro is also outside fashionable political/literary/cultural studies theories which often dominate academic history and biography – its study/publication/review.

I should probably have phrased my first post better – the academic establishment in UK and USA tends to ignore him - would have been better – and added, successful professional UK politicians and senior editors interested in social justice seem to like the books and review them often.

There is an obvious practical point – its 4 long vols. and hard work to read – who thinks it will sell. Reviewing long, complex, detailed, specialist books for not much money is also hard work. But I go too far.

An eccentric ‘left’-field anecdote. After retirement Sir Alex Ferguson spent months reading the 4 volumes. He publically recommends it. https://www.waterstones.com/blog/sir-al ... rite-books

I hope my response indicates that I take comments seriously, can doubt my judgment, but usually check in detail to see if I’m on reasonable ground.

Re Amazon. Australia is at the end of the earth and Amazon has no current ‘real world physical’ presence here, therefore you currently pay substantial weight based international air postage from the overseas storage/supply location. In countries like Egypt I imagine it’s similar whereas in the UK maybe its just low-cost land postage from a local UK storage - which they cover. Lucky you.


  Top                        
Reply with quote  
PostPosted: Tue Nov 21, 2017 6:31 am  |  Posted from: Egypt
  

User avatar
Egyptian Pharaoh
Egyptian Pharaoh

Joined: Mon Mar 14, 2005 10:46 am
Posts: 4434
Topics: 349
Images: 1
Arcade Highscores: 10
Gender: None specified
National Flag:
United Kingdom
Look forward to the Viet Nam days. Bet that's an eye opener.


  Top                        
Reply with quote  
PostPosted: Tue Nov 21, 2017 11:43 am  |  Posted from: United Kingdom
  

Member
Member

Joined: Sun Mar 06, 2011 8:33 am
Posts: 104
Topics: 1
Images: 0
Arcade Highscores: 0
Gender: None specified
Age: 55
Hafiz wrote:
Its impossible for me to know his actual UK sales but a 10 second search indicates few second hand Caro LBJ books available on the Internet from UK dealers – which suggests that few originally sold in the UK.

You can get an inkling of how many were sold by examining the sales rankings on Amazon. The first volume, for example, is ranked #97 for American political biographies. That's surprisingly high for a book which came out in 1991.

In any case, I can understand why these books might be popular in America, but why would they be remotely as popular in the UK? If there was a massive four-volume biography of, say, Harold Wilson, would you expect it to sell in any quantity in the USA?

https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/bestsellers ... 1_4_last#5

Hafiz wrote:
Re Amazon. Australia is at the end of the earth and Amazon has no current ‘real world physical’ presence here, therefore you currently pay substantial weight based international air postage from the overseas storage/supply location. In countries like Egypt I imagine it’s similar whereas in the UK maybe its just low-cost land postage from a local UK storage - which they cover. Lucky you.

Sorry, I should have noticed that you're posting from Oz. I see there's an Amazon site for Australia but it only offers e-books.


  Top                        
Reply with quote  
 
Post new topic Reply to topic


Similar Topics

 Similar topics   Author   Replies   Views   Last post 
 


Who is online

Who is online Users browsing this forum: AwarioRss [Bot] and 1 guest


Display posts from previous:  Sort by  
Jump to:  

You cannot post new topics in this forum
You cannot reply to topics in this forum
You cannot edit your posts in this forum
You cannot delete your posts in this forum
You cannot post attachments in this forum