By training, Robert Caro is a journalist. By profession, he is a biographer, among the most highly acclaimed living, thanks to his four books—three volumes on [Lyndon] Johnson and a saga about the New York public-works titan Robert Moses. But in his daily life, Caro more resembles a scientist, driven by the principle that you understand something only by observing it, watching it with great concentration and for a long time. In his New York City office, where everything has its particular place, he works long hours, seven days a week, poring through interview transcripts and primary source notes, working slowly and deliberately on books he publishes, on average, once every 10 years. His meticulous routine is sometimes painful, he says, but necessary. Only by gathering as many facts as possible, cataloging them, cross-checking them and sitting with them at great length, can he choose the right words to re-create the past inside his readers' heads. Words matter to Caro. "I have always thought," he told me this winter, "that in nonfiction, the level of the writing has to be as good as any novel if it is going to endure." [...]
"This building used to be filled with writers," Caro says as he lets a visitor into his Manhattan office, two blocks south of Central Park. "They're all gone now. Now it's just me."
Caro receives his own guests here. He has no secretary or bright young assistant to fetch coffee or comb through files. The only person he really trusts with his work is Ina [his wife]; she keeps her own office further uptown. He does not use a computer. He does have a telephone, but its chief virtue, Caro says, is that it "can be turned off." There are seldom knocks on the door. Still, Caro wears a coat and tie to the office each morning so he never forgets when he sits down with his research that he is going to work.
Every inch of the New York office is governed by rules. There are regulations for book placement (general nonfiction on the post–Cold War is farthest from Caro's desk; books on his immediate subject are kept closest) and the stacking of notebooks (new interview subjects, like the JFK speechwriter Theodore Sorensen, sit at the top of the heap, while the oldest interviews, like Johnson's brother, Sam Houston, inhabit the bottom). The western wall contains only a giant outline—20 pages that get Caro from the beginning to the end of each book. "I trained myself to be organized," he explains, pointing almost apologetically at his massive writer's map. "If you're fumbling around trying to remember what notebook has what quote, you can't be in the room with the people you're writing about."
Even Caro's home is governed by a code he created to keep himself productive and sane. The Caros' Upper West Side apartment is filled with books, his collection and hers, but none sit in the dining or living rooms. "When he's at home, he doesn't want to think about his work," Ina explains. Indeed, though they have each devoted their lives to him for more than three decades, the Caros have a policy of not discussing Lyndon Johnson, at dinner or anywhere else. Ina presents her research to Bob in typed reports, which her husband then marks up. "I know what he's looking for without him telling me," she explains. She rarely reads his work until it is in manuscript form.
Jonathan Darman, "The Marathon Man," Newsweek, February 16, 2009
(Thanks to Ryan Holiday.)