In the introduction to Working, his monumental 1972 collection of oral histories on how Americans think about work, the great journalist Studs Terkel wrote that work ‘‘is, by its very nature, about violence – to the spirit as well as to the body … [yet] it is about a search too for daily meaning as well as daily bread … for astonishment rather than torpor; in short for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying’’.

American biographer Robert Caro’s quasi-memoir of the same title reads like an extended interview done by Terkel in his own Working. Caro’s subject is his work process, his labour as a reporter, biographer and historian, with all its attendant astonishment, meaning and more than occasional spiritual violence. Via the entry points of urban planner Robert Moses and President Lyndon Johnson, Caro’s work has produced the books that not only defined how those two momentous figures are understood, but in so doing has shaped how many across the globe understand the acquisition and functioning of real, actually existing power.

What does Caro mean by power? He has no interest in modern theoretical debates or the birth of this or that subject, no desire to engage with the hip theorist du jour. For Caro, power is the ability of a single person to wave a hand and build hundreds of miles of roads and bridges. To provide tens of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in profits to chosen allies in the process. To dislocate hundreds of thousands of people, raze entire neighbourhoods, destroy communities and change the geography of one of the world’s largest metropolises. To pass a Civil Rights Act that was a political impossibility for nearly a century. To enact the kind of social legislation only dreamt of by previous generations of Americans (and given much of this legislation’s more recent decimation, many of us today as well).

Robert Caro
Robert CaroSource: Getty

And, of course, to make the decisions that led to the deaths of probably about 2 million Vietnamese – civilians as well as soldiers fighting for their independence – and nearly 60,000 Americans, along with the 490 Australians who died fighting beside them. The person who holds this kind of power holds in their hands the livelihoods, life courses and lives of millions.

How do you tell the story of this kind of power? First, with work. Slow, exacting, methodical work. An early mentor of Caro’s, a hardened working-class investigative journalist straight out of central casting, offered him an early piece of advice: ‘‘Read every page.’’ This is an adage that Caro runs with over the next 50-plus years of his career.

Above all else, Caro’s Working is the story of his attempt to read every page on his subjects, as literally as possible but also metaphorically. It’s not enough to spend more time with Johnson’s papers, to read more of the tens of millions of documents produced by that man and his various offices than any other human.

The historian and biographer must go further, they must sleep under the Texas Hill Country stars to feel the profound loneliness in which young Lyndon grew up. They must spend at least a little time doing the back-breaking daily labour expected of women across pre-New Deal, pre-electrification rural America that animated the motives for Johnson’s attainment of power.

The explanatory power of a ‘‘sense of place’’, so bereft in modern social science, is not local colour. It is in fact integral to understanding motivation and context. Without it, understanding real power – and all the ways it shapes our lives – is not just a fool’s errand but profoundly anti-intellectual. The work of someone too lazy, careerist or certain in their assumptions to ‘‘turn every page’’.

While Caro does not dwell on what Terkel called ‘‘the violence to the spirit’’ that his devotion to his labour enacted upon him, it bubbles up throughout Working. In an Anglo-Australian intellectual culture, where institutions such as universities, the REF (Research Excellence Framework) and the ARC (Australian Research Council) increasingly value vapid and measurable quantity over meaningful and lasting quality, the story of The Power Broker is an object lesson in the bankruptcy of that approach to the production of knowledge.

Five years after resigning his position as a reporter to focus on the book, Caro was broke and nowhere near close to finishing what would become his award-winning book on Robert Moses, the great and never-elected builder of New York. Coming home one day, he found his wife and frequent research partner Ina had sold their house without having discussed it with him, to pay the bills.

Four years later, in a tiny Bronx apartment and still broke and unemployed, Caro published The Power Broker, more than 1300 pages of deeply contextualised research that introduced a new model of the way biography can illuminate the central questions of politics and power. In Working, Caro tells his story of work beyond the nine to five, the paying of rent and career advancement, a story of work that matters.

Robert A. Caro
The Bodley Head