Robert Caro is an 87-year-old biographer who has published five books – “The Power Broker,” a memoir of New York city urban planner Robert Moses, along with four volumes on “The Years of Lyndon Johnson.” A fifth and final volume has been in the works for years, but then Caro typically releases a new tome every decade, on average.
His longtime editor is fellow New Yorker Robert Gottlieb, a 91-year-old editing veteran who has revised enough fiction and nonfiction works to fill an entire wall. His client list reads like a who’s who of famous people. In fact, it was Gottlieb who insisted Joseph Heller change his original title “Catch-18” to the now iconic “Catch-22.”
His daughter Lizzie Gottlieb is a documentary filmmaker whose latest work explores the working relationship between her father and Caro. “Turn Every Page: The Adventures of Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb” might sound boring to those outside the publishing industry (which is, obviously, most of us), but the end result is anything but. “Turn Every Page” is an often fascinating look at an industry most of us take for granted – even avid readers.
Interesting directorial choice
After brief introductions of the two protagonists, “Turn Every Page” concentrates more on Gottlieb at the beginning and Caro during the film’s second half. This is an interesting directorial choice, given the writing always precedes the editing. However, the Caro segment turns out to be the more interesting and entertaining of the two, practically necessitating “Turn Every Page” concludes with his focus section.
Gottlieb’s portion is compelling not only for his laundry list of authors and celebrities – including former president Bill Clinton – but for the meticulous nature by which he approaches his work. Gottlieb tells us some authors need direction on sentence structure; others on paragraph placement. Caro requires very little hands-on advice. Instead, Gottlieb and Caro could have long, heated arguments on the placement of one semi-colon. Gottlieb believes in the textbook use of all punctuation marks. Caro, the author, prefers to use them (and sometimes intentionally overuse them) to emphasize the rhythm of the way the reader “hears” the words. One might think all this squabble over punctuation is unnecessary. Not for these two, it isn’t.
Also noteworthy is Gottlieb’s assertion that he was born to be an editor because he had no interest in sports, was not physically gifted, was not musical, and suffered a difficult childhood. From an early age, Gottlieb found his solace in reading. He read every book he could get his hands on. He still spends his “leisure” time reading – that is, reading books he has not edited.
The second half of “Turn Every Page” concentrates on Caro – a man who, ironically, also admits to a troubled childhood. Caro found his comfort in writing. He still writes every day, sometimes churning out more pages in one day than most of us could write in a week.
And boy is Caro comprehensive. This is a man who moved his family from New York City to West Texas – for several years — so he could get a feel for the country into which Lyndon Johnson was born. He met the people of West Texas. He grew to know many of them personally, and still communicates regularly with many of them. And you thought James Michener was thorough!
You might also wonder how anyone could possibly produce four (and soon to be five) long volumes of work on Lyndon Johnson. But Caro’s work isn’t solely focused on one man. In fact, his book on Johnson’s senate years is as much about the historical workings of the U.S. Senate than it is on Johnson’s manipulation of Senate procedure to his own political advantage. These are protracted, highly-detailed examinations of American politics by one of the most decorated journalists and authors of the twentieth century.
It is also interesting to take a step back in time with “Turn Every Page.” Watching these two accomplished professionals is a wistful reminder of the golden age of publishing, journalism, and writing – all somewhat lost arts in this day and age of instantly shared videos. Gottlieb and Caro themselves seem to exist in another era. Caro still writes on an electric typewriter – not a desktop or laptop. One wonders where he finds replacement ribbons. Gottlieb still edits with a number-two pencil. Caro asserts that on a recent walk through Central Park, he was the only person not communicating on some kind of device while walking.
Gottlieb and Caro share a love of their work, but their relationship has always been (a) strictly professional, and (b) somewhat testy. They are both strong-willed, and do what they can to convince the other. I found “Turn Every Page” to be nothing short of enlightening. Again, previous knowledge of, or even interest in, reading and writing is not required to enjoy this excellent documentary.
Andy Ray‘s reviews also appear on https://youarecurrent.com/category/nightandday/film-reviews/.