Completely captivated by Richard Rhodes’ THE MAKING OF THE ATOMIC BOMB

coverNonfiction is such a huge category. In my mind, I tend to divide it between works that are trying to describe things and works that are trying to make some normative point about the world (there are also personal narratives, like memoirs). Obviously, there is alot of overlap here, because most descriptive books also contain some element of “This is how things ought to be.” And either of those things can contain enough of a personal narrative that they might qualify as memoirs. In a rough sense, the division is between polemics and history books.

Although they contain many facts, I’d say that The Feminist Mystique, Studs Terkel’s WorkingSilent Spring, Arlie Hochschild’s The Second Shift, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, and  Tolstoy’s What is Art?  all fall into what I’d call the polemical mode.

In general, I tend to respond better to polemics (even when I disagree with the essential point) because there’s something very charismatic about listening to a person who believes so strongly in what they’re saying. A good polemic provides a measure of security in this world: it tells you that values and standards do exist and that it is possible to arrive by them through some mix of belief and reason and intuition.

However, I have also consumed a number of more straight-forward explications in my life. Amongst these, I tend not to prefer books that are straightforwardly about personalities or mere recitations of events. I think that once upon a time, especially in the 19th and early 20th centuries, there was a fashion for books that were about events and people. And I just can’t take those. Any biography, in particular, that doesn’t aspire to be more than just a description of a person’s life, is boring to me.

I need a book that attempts to use facts to systematize and try to understand the world. That’s why my favorite biography is Robert Caro’s The Life of Lyndon Johnson. It’s an amazing, sprawling set of books (I’ve written about before), that’s about nothing less than how government works, on a practical level, in America. By looking at Lyndon (who was an awful man, though a fairly good President) and the people that he encountered and befriended and destroyed and the institutions that he changed, the book shows us how the sausage gets made: How does someone get elected? How do they maintain power? How do they create and pass legislation?

It’s hard to tell when a book is going to be worthwhile in that manner, because many people just read nonfiction books because they like colorful stories. Thus, it’s possible for a nonfiction book to receive tremendous acclaim even though it doesn’t really have much analysis. Randy Shilt’s And The Band Played On is a nonfiction book with almost zero analysis, for instance. It doesn’t look at why the public didn’t respond to the AIDS crisis or why men’s organizing efforts failed or didn’t fail in the way they did. (I’m not saying that was a flaw in that particular book, since that wasn’t its mandate. The book was written in the midst of the crisis and its role was simply to capture the facts. I’m just using it as an example).

This is a really long way of saying that I am in love with Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb. For the first twentieth of it or so, I was engaged but mildly dubious. It seemed to be spending lots of time on the personality and life history of various physicists and on the details of physics experiments that I only sort of understand. But then it went into a long riff about World War I and poison gas and the mechanization of warfare (as a prelude to the line of thinking that would make the atomic bomb seem like a good idea), and I was completely hooked. Last night, at 1 AM, I was like, “Hmm…I could just stay up for a few hours and read this…”

Now the book is about Budapest and how Hungary created a lot of stellar atomic scientists! Not sure how this will fit into the larger storyline, but I am loving the section! (I do have a weakness for the Austro-Hungarian empire. Everything I’ve ever read about it makes it seem simultaneously schlerotic and vibrant. And it produced some amazing writers: Joseph Roth, Robert Musil, Stefan Zweig, Dezső Kosztolányi)

Robert Caro’s _Years of Lyndon Johnson_ is the greatest work of literature that America has produced

passage-of-power-article            One of the fun aspects of being fairly well-read is the (perhaps false) confidence to make very sweeping statements about literature. Well, here’s one: I’ve just finished reading the fourth volume of Robert Caro’s mammoth biography of Lyndon Johnson, and I am now more convinced than ever that it is the greatest work of American literature that I have ever read and, perhaps, the greatest that our nation has produced.

I read the first three volumes of the biography way back in 2003, during the summer after my junior year in high school. And even at the time, they profoundly influenced my vision of human nature. Caro has researched Lyndon Johnson about as extensively as a person can be researched (which includes uncovering tons of stuff that no previous biographer had ever found). He, very famously, went into the work intending to write a somewhat hagiographic account–a book that would (at least partially) rehabilitate a President who, despite the horror of the Vietnam War, also presided over the high watermark of compassionate government in America (by enacting civil rights laws, Medicare, etc). However, once he began his research, Caro found that Lyndon Johnson was, in many ways, a terrible man: vindictive, arrogant, small-minded, power-hungry, unprincipled, and ruthless. He’s a guy who not only destroyed people he didn’t like…he also destroyed his friends and subordinates by humiliating them again and again until they either left him or became shells of human beings.

This isn’t a case of “Well, we all have our faults”. No, if Caro’s book is to be believed, then Lyndon Johnson was an awful person on a level that few ordinary people manage.

He displays sparks of compassion for poor people, colored people, underprivileged people…but acts upon this compassion only when it’s politically expedient. For instance, this guy who became the champion of civil rights actually worked to block civil rights legislation during much of his time in the Senate.

For the high school version of me, the book was like someone being honest to me for the first time. The vision of human nature that we’re given as children is such thin stuff. People are portrayed as somewhat unitary: they’re kind or cruel, they’re compassionate or callous, they’re faithful or disloyal. On occasion, someone might have a “failing”–a mostly-good person might be unable to control his adulterous impulses or might succumb to the lure of ambition. But, in general, people have a level. They have a soul. They have a personality.

Human nature is portrayed as fundamentally top-down. You’re a certain kind of person and, thus, you act in a certain way. A kind person is basically a kind robot–they can be relied upon to dispense kindness in most situations. In those cases where they fail, it’s because the kindness automation has suffered a temporary “failing.”

It’s such an impoverished view of the world.

What the best works of modernist literature–In Search Of Lost Time, Mrs. Dalloway, The Good Soldier–did was to set aside this view of human nature and try to explain how what we see as a person’s essence is really just a pattern that we’ve concocted from a fairly limited data-set: the sum of what we’ve seen and heard about them.

In Search Of Lost Time contained characters who were recognizably themselves, but nonetheless changed dramatically when viewed from different angles. From one angle, Baron Palamede was a handsome charmer with perfectly refined manners; from another angle, he was a grossly lustful monster who corrupted and was corrupted by the youth that he consorted with. And both were true portraits of the man.

But, as good as those works are, they’re still fiction. The Years of Lyndon Johnson is true. It’s the field-test of that theory.

Lyndon Johnson is an awful person. But he’s more than that. He works incredibly hard. He’s perceptive. And he’s driven by the kinds of fears that would make any person’s life hell.

And, what’s more, he knows how to get things done.

Time and again, he clashes against liberals who know how to talk right and act right, but can’t enact what they want. He knows how to do it. And because they actually come to fruition, even his limited efforts do far more good than those of his peers.

It’s marvelous.

By the end of even the first volume of the book, you know that you’d never want to even be in the same room as Johnson. But you also love him.

Anyway, even as a high school student, I thrilled at the realization that there is more to life than personality: that a life is something that’s constructed, day after day, action after action. In reading this latest volume as an adult, I now see how well-constructed it is. The series is a supreme literary achievement. The pacing is fantastic, the use of detail, the ways in which Caro skips over things that we already know or have seen, the way he reminds us of stuff that’s already happened. The ways in which he shifts the focus of each volume.

This series contains the world. It holds long meditations on power, privilege, personality, governing–it’s impossible to describe. Oftentimes there’ll be hundred page long riffs on stuff that Caro thinks is necessary to the current volume. In this latest one, he contains long sections on the two Kennedys: RFK and JFK. In the last one, he included a history of the Senate and its functioning.

Anyway, this is a brilliant book. It’s absolutely worth the time it takes to read. Much more so than Moby Dick.

However, if you want a shorter example of Caro’s technique, it’s also worth reading his Pulitzer Prize winning biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker. Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of Moses, I certainly hadn’t. But the book is absolutely fantastic and it uses a similar sort of technique and creates a similar sort of effect.

(Oh, for those who’re wondering where this volume stacks up re: the other three volumes, I will have to say that it’s a bit worse. The beginning, where Johnson vacillates over whether to run for President, is really slow. I mean, he’s scared to run. We get it. And the middle, where he mopes over how powerless he is as a Vice President, also feels a bit overwritten. However, the 2/5ths or so of the book that takes place after the Kennedy assassination is really great. A total return to form. And the whole book is still very interesting. I read it in, like, five days.)