Robert Caro Needs a Copy Editor and a Producer for his Footnotes

Author: William Carleton
Published: June 11, 2012 at 4:10 pm

The new Robert Caro book on Lyndon Johnson, The Passage of Power, is hard to put down, even given how big and heavy it is. (As an object, it is very nicely designed. Opens flat at the page to which you turn; feels rugged.)

But I've got to say - and this will seem contradictory, to praise a book as an enjoyable page turner and then decry a fundamental stylistic lumberousness - it could use a good copyedit. There is a 400 page narrative in those supersized 605 pages.

I'm not saying Caro should have trimmed back any information. On the contrary. Had redundancies been pruned (I know editors who could have done this) he could have taken more interview and other primary source material out of his footnotes and into the narrative.

Speaking of that rich, additional material: why not hire a producer to make the footnoted references - video of LBJ speeches; audio recordings of interviews with LBJ, JFK and RFK contemporaries and aides; documents from the Johnson Presidential Library in Austin - available by subscription (probably as a web service)?

I would not suggest formatting the main narrative for an e-reader or tablet, however. Caro is old school; his mindset, and his ambition, require - and deserve - the full scale production of a dedicated, single-purpose, content-delivery device, i.e., a book of printed paper pages, something Gutenberg would recognize.

But the research material - that investment of Caro and his wife deserves accessibility, too. That calls for different media, and could be pulled off in a way that supplements, rather than interferes with, the printed tome.

And here's how the required technology might function: it could take the form of an app which, via a smartphone's camera or google glasses, senses what research materials are pertinent to the narrative on a given page (the page itself must remain text and must be neither simplified nor littered with QR codes or other gimmicks) and permits the reader to take a side trip at will.

There's a new invention for you: old school book to get lost in (as I said, it's a page turner, somehow in spite of the redundancies), supplemented by an app by which to take side trips. 


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Article Author: William Carleton

Seattle lawyer, daily blogger, co-creator of the mobile app, Startup Trivia.

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