Turn Every Page Review: A fascinating documentary about the world of books

The Captivating DocumentaryTurn each page: The Adventures of Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb“It opens with white and black inscriptions, accompanied by a typewriter stack, which will be music to the ears of some viewers. Robert Caro, the author at the center of the documentary, writes incredible books of scientific literature – “The Power Broker”, his 1280-page study of how Robert Moses literally shaped New York City, and “The Lyndon Johnson Years”, his four-volume a biography that is currently awaiting its fifth and final volume – but retrieves these imperially detailed and compelling volumes on an old electric typewriter, X-outputting passages as it goes, supporting each page with an extra sheet and a piece of carbon paper. You can’t get much more analogue than that. As Turn Every Page reveals, Caro is still married to the methods of the last century; the digital revolution has not touched him. It is up to us to decide whether this is just a fascinating oddity or a mysteriously integral part of the fact that Caro has been hailed as the greatest biographer of his time. I would say the latter.

“Turn Every Page”, which tells the story of the relationship between Caro and its longtime editor Robert Gottlieb (this is indeed the story of both men), is a love letter to many aspects of the publishing world that are more or less left out. The film is directed by Lizzie Gottlieb, the daughter of Robert Gottlieb, and if that sounds like a cozy family affair, the film is meticulously straightforward and revealing. The real family in question is the brotherhood of Caro and Gottlieb, who have worked together for 50 years. The two almost never see each other outside of editing sessions, but when they crouch over a manuscript, they are like literary high priests operating in their own unique plane – which translates, amusingly, into a partnership that everyone, including them, describes as fantastic. controversial. They argue about every page, every semicolon. (Caro loves her dots and commas; Gottlieb hates them.)

Caro, 86, and Gottlieb, 91, both began as nice Jewish boys in New York, and in different ways, each took a missionary approach to what writing could be. Gottlieb has an appearance and demeanor that may remind you of Woody Allen, but he is like Woody Allen, who has escaped neurosis. (He was engaged in analysis for eight years, but stopped. It worked!) to establish the power and mystique of book publishing in the post-war era.

The film presents Gottlieb as a perfect editor who reviews every manuscript he is given the night he receives it, viewing it as an idealized reader / critic. In the 1960s and 1970s, he built Knopf into a unique empire and was far ahead of the game in realizing that bestsellers that didn’t pretend to be art could fund literature. Gottlieb has great stories (he discovered the manuscript of “Trick-22” and renamed it, changing “18” to “22”) and thought he had edited 600 to 700 books. (Its authors are John Cheever, Tony Morrison, John Le Carre, Doris Lessing, Bruno Bettelheim, Barbara Touchman, Salman Rushdie, Ray Bradbury and Michael Crichton.) But his work with Caro sits on a special mountain peak.

If Gottlieb can sometimes look quite dandy (he was so great that he somehow found time to work as a programmer and merchant at George Balanchine’s New York Ballet), Caro, withered but still handsome, with low eyebrows. The York accent is as unpretentious as his books are monumental. He started as a reporter for Newsday and when he started writing his biography of Robert Moses, he had no contract, no connections. It took him seven years to complete the book, in part because he was forced to tell the story not only of how Moses transformed New York, especially with its highway system, but also of the communities whose lives it disrupted. Caro is a biographer of American power from top to bottom and bottom to top.

Still, he despaired that he would ever finish the book. It was ruined, with family. So his wife and researcher Ina sold their home on Long Island and moved them to a rough apartment in the Bronx that they hated. Fate smiled when Caro met Agent Lynn Nesbitt, who saw the stunning breadth of his talent, and arranged meetings with four editors-in-chief, one of whom was Gottlieb. Three of them took Caro to the Four Seasons for lunch and said they would make him a star, something Caro said he didn’t care about. (Who doesn’t want to be a star? When you listen to Caro, with his gnome modesty, you think: this man.) But Gottlieb, who knew within 15 pages that “The Power Broker” was a masterpiece, ordered sandwiches at his office and talk about how he will shape the book. He won the job.

They had to shorten Caro’s manuscript from millions of words to 700,000 words. And there was no fat on it! Nothing that had to go. The book just couldn’t be bigger than that – her spine would literally break – so the two men huddled together for 10 months, erasing a third of the manuscript. Caro never expected the book to sell, but The Power Broker, published in 1974, is now in its 41st edition; sold for half a century. This is because it is a study of how the world actually works – of money, power and ego. This will be Caro’s big topic. By telling the story of Robert Moses and then Lyndon B. Johnson, he somehow reveals the secret history of the 20th century.

There is a breathtaking scene in the documentary when Caro, sitting in Lyndon Johnson’s childhood home, tells how she talked to Johnson’s brother, who was suffering from cancer at the time, and made him tell the truth about Johnson. The false folk anecdotes that had followed Johnson for years disappeared as the brother told the darker story of what really happened. Caro began collecting the story of how Johnson, who as president chaired the legislation (Civil Rights, Medicare) that revolutionized people’s lives, also cut throats and shattered ethics to do so. The author decided he wanted to make readers feel Johnson’s “despair.” He taped an index card to a lamp that read, “Is there despair on this page?” how politics and corruption dance together in America.

In “Turn Every Page” we never see Caro and Gottlieb in the same room – at least not until the end, when they sit together for an editing session, although the two men did not allow it to be filmed with sound. (Here’s how top-secret their editing process is.) And yet what these two aging but vital figures continue to tell us, with the fierce attachment to their mutual reference camaraderie, is what publishing can be: a sacred pursuit of create something that binds readers as religion does.

Caro, as we see, has a real cult of people who worship his books (they include Conan O’Brien, Ethan Hawke, Lisa Lucas and David Remnick, all of whom are interviewed) and who are awaiting the fifth volume of Johnson’s Biography. as if it were a stone slab to be handed over. Turn Every Page is rooted in an age when people might feel this way about books. So it can be said that the film is nostalgic for the lost era of publishing. But the term “nostalgia” does not correspond to why books like these once mattered and perhaps still do. They are immersive, they are history – but more than that, they are the foundations of a civilized society. These are books that remind us, in an age of shattered attention spans and drug media, that the big picture is the real picture. Everything else is fragments.

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