Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Deferential Spirit by Joan Didion | The New York Review of Books:

This quo vadis, or valedictory, mode is one in which Mr. Woodward has crashed repeatedly when faced with the question of what his books are about, as if his programming did not extend to this point. The “human story is the core” was his somewhat more perfunctory stab at explaining what he was up to in The Commanders. For Wired, his 1984 book about the life and death of the comic John Belushi, Mr. Woodward spoke to 217 people on the record and obtained access to “appointment calendars, diaries, telephone records, credit card receipts, medical records, handwritten notes, letters, photographs, newspaper and magazine articles, stacks of accountants’ records covering the last several years of Belushi’s life, daily movie production reports, contracts, hotel records, travel records, taxi receipts, limousine bills and Belushi’s monthly cash disbursement records,” only to arrive, not unlike HAL in 2001, at these questions: “Why? What happened? Who was responsible, if anyone? Could it have been different or better? Those were the questions raised by his family, friends and associates. Could success have been something other than a failure? The questions persist. Nonetheless, his best and most definitive legacy is his work. He made us laugh, and now he can make us think.”

In any real sense, these books are “about” nothing but the author’s own method, which is not, on the face of it, markedly different from other people’s. Mr. Woodward interviews people, he tapes or takes (“detailed”) notes on what they say. He takes “great care to compare and verify various sources’ accounts of the same events.” He obtains documents, he reads them, he files them: for The Brethren, the book he wrote with Scott Armstrong about the Supreme Court, the documents “filled eight file drawers.” He consults The Almanac of American Politics (“the bible, and I relied on it”), he reads what others have written on the subject: “In preparation for my own reporting,” he tells us about The Choice, “I and my assistant, Karen Alexander, read and often studied hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles.”