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Pulitzer Journal: The Power Broker — An Inquiry Into Means and Ends
At 1,163 pages, Robert Caro’s The Power Broker — winner of the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for Biography — is about as long as printed books get. Not only that, the pages are big and dense with words. Ask anyone who’s read the book, though, and they’ll tell you it’s among the greatest non-fiction works of all-time. One friend said:
“In my opinion, it is the best book ever written about American politics.”
Another friend noted:
“Longest book I’ve read, maybe the best piece of nonfiction.”
It’s worth pointing out that both of these friends are journalists, which was Robert Caro’s line of work before turning his career to door-stopping biographies.
I have to agree with them. The Power Broker sits atop any list of great American histories or biographies.
What is it about this massive book about a New York City parks commissioner that desverses such adulation?
As with any all-time great work, it’s because the subject matter goes beyond its immediate topic and gets to the core of human nature. It tells us something uniquely insightful about life.
In this particular story, Caro deeply examined a man who accomplished truly great things in the realm of public works, but used abhorrent means to get there.
Ultimately, this is a book about means and ends.
Robert Moses created more highways, built more bridges, and established more parks than most other great public works officials combined. In his wake, however, were tens of thousands of relocated people (mostly Black and Brown people), unnecessarily condemned homes and apartment buildings, and a city transformed into a concrete jungle.
His primary motivation — Caro would say his only motivation —was raw power. To Moses, people were only good for their usefulness to his ends.
I started reading The Power Broker well before deciding to embark on this Pulitzer Project. Earlier this year, I got a coworker (Seth) hooked on Robert Caro’s series on Lyndon Johnson. Seth read those four books with a few of his friends and enjoyed the experience so much that he wanted to do it again.
Enter The Power Broker, the famed biographer’s first published book. Since I hadn’t read it before, I was invited to be part of the Caro reading group this time.
We all started on August 1st. There was a rough schedule in mind, but no daily page count or anything. We used a text thread to send updates about our progress, note the passages and stories that stood out, and generally shoot the shit about the amazing quality of Caro’s writing. Since it’s non-fiction, we weren’t worried about spoilers or anything — the book’s value lies far more in the telling than the facts.
During the workday, Seth and I would chat even more about the reading via Slack and in our weekly team calls. (We make up a team of two within the marketing department.) We’d talk about connections to work, but also to other parts of our lives.
Though the seeds of a real friendship had been planted quite a bit earlier, it’s in this period of time, I think, that Seth and I made the lasting transition into friendship. No matter what happens at work, we are more than just coworkers.
And it’s all thanks to a book.
The ends of this reading experience — finishing the book, being someone who has read The Power Broker, making progress on my Pulitzer Project — are great. Absolutely worthwhile and totally satisfying. The means, though, were even more fulfilling. When a book fosters connection and good conversation, its meaning is brought outside the covers and into the real world. We can’t just live inside our books, after all. (No matter how appealing that idea might be.)
In my final reflection of The Power Broker, here’s what is crystal clear: how you treat and interact with people along the way — how you listen, love, help, etc. — determines the ultimate value and success of whichever ends you’re after in life.
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