This May, when Robert Caro’s fourth volume of his now-five-part Lyndon Baines Johnson biography is released, that’s going to be me up there, camped out overnight outside my local booksellers, dressed in a costume with a bunch of other nerds, except we will all be dressed like Coke Stevenson, Lady Bird Johnson, and Sam Rayburn instead of wizards, because Robert Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson is my Harry Potter.
I’m not joking, either (about camping outside a bookstore in a costume, or those books being my Harry Potter). The Caro LBJ books are probably, all things considered, the best I’ve ever read. If they’re not the best, they’re certainly the most immersive. I read the first three in a crazed several month period beginning last December and ending up around April, a period during which I read nothing else (one of the pleasures of a quiet 40-minute one-way bus commute is eighty minutes a day of reading time, interrupted by nothing except occasional attempts to flirt with whatever downtown St. Paul nonprofit workers might be seated next to me — and believe me, nothing gets a downtown St. Paul nonprofit workers feeling reciprocally flirtatious like a blindingly handsome arts administrator reading a 700-page book about Lyndon Johnson). Caro’s attention to detail is so complete that anytime in the narrative Lyndon Johnson meets a person that’s going to play some sort of major role in his life, Caro will back up and spend a few chapters examining that person’s life prior to the point they met Lyndon Johnson — at least a hundred pages, in some cases.
So what this means for you, the reader, is that you’re drawn into this pattern of reading about LBJ, then reading about people, places and events that are not LBJ, for very long stretches of time, then finally arcing back around to find out how LBJ responded to these people, places and events.
LBJ ruled my imagination so thoroughly in the months after I finished the third volume, and this LBJ-not-LBJ pattern was so well established, that with every book I read afterward — every book not about LBJ, whether nonfiction or fiction — I was still, subconsciously, reading with the expectation that anything I was encountering was simply a set-up for enabling me to better understand how Lyndon Baines Johnson might interact with it. So I’d be reading some fictional novel, about character living in the present day that had nothing to do with Texas in the 1940s, and in the back of my mind, I’d still be chuckling to myself, “Oh boy, Lyndon’s not going to like this guy one bit. I can’t wait to see how totally he is going to flip his shit when they get together in another fifty pages.”
My point is, I’ll see you outside Magers & Quinn this spring. I’ll be wearing a Pappy O’Daniel costume.