The Power Broker

The Power Broker

What Robert Caro’s The Power Broker Taught Me about Linking History and Current Events
(and How to Tackle Daunting Books)

My dad gave me The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, by Robert Caro, about 10 years ago. Actually, he gave it to my wife and she immediately handed it over to me. He even gave it to our kids, so impressed was he with the book and the lessons it taught. It took me about five years to read. Truth be told, I had to Audible that last 400 pages at 1.6x speed while walking the dog, but I got it done!

The process was so long I barely remember the beginning, so I know I’ll have to read it again sometime. And I will because the book is a masterpiece. My dad described Robert Moses as a brilliant guy, but also “a real bastard.” After I had plowed through the first two-thirds of the book my summary would have been, “Wow, what a tutorial in how to acquire power and get things done.”  But as I finished the book, I was angry and saddened by the casualties throughout the city – people and their neighborhoods displaced and ruined due to actions and policies that often seemed racially motivated. He cared about big ideas, and that included major highways everywhere that destroyed or irrevocably divided communities. Concerns about the impact on individuals’ lives were ignored; their losses were seen as collateral damage.

Over the years, scholars and others have tried to resuscitate Moses’ reputation. Here’s an example.  Here’s another. Reading just these two articles, it’s easy to see that while he did some good things, Moses wasn’t exactly a good guy.  But as I thought about The Power Broker, I found myself linking it to another book I recently read, How to Be an Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi. In his introduction, Kendi says the book looks at how to approach racism, “the basic struggle we’re all in, the struggle to be fully human and to see that others are fully human.” In the book he offers a number of instances of racially motivated public policy at work.

I salute Robert Caro for his monumental book about the history of New York’s roadwork and the singular man behind their construction. Now I’ve put Caro’s Lyndon Johnson biography in my crosshairs. Four volumes have already been published, totaling more than 3,000 pages. And there’s a fifth volume to come!

Meanwhile, if you’ve ever been intimidated by a book you want to read but are too scared to try, let me share my methodology for taking on difficult or long volumes.

  1. I read about the author and the period in which it was set to provide context. For example I read this this New Yorker piece about Caro’s research and writing techniques on the LBJ opus two years ago, and it helped keep me going on The Power Broker.
  2. I read Wikipedia or get Cliff/Spark notes and pre-read about the book. This was really helpful for Paradise Lost, For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Great Gatsby.
  3. I get the audio book and do a hybrid listen/read to keep me going in slow sections.  Seeing the physical progress of moving my bookmark gets me fired up to finish it.

Don’t put off starting a long book because you fear you won’t finish it. I hope I’ve inspired you to take a chance on reading, at great length!


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