‘Please allow me a moment to help you with this.’
I was yet again bugging an Amazon customer service associate with a question. This time, it was an important one: how many words are in The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Robert Caro’s colossal ongoing biography of the former U.S. president?
To be fair, the number of words may not be the most important number as far as the book is concerned. Caro is now 82 years old, and has spent more than half of those years—42—devoted to the project. He’s released four volumes of the book to date, 3 522 pages so far, and has let an average of 10 years elapse between each. In the book, he’s only reached 1964, the very start of the presidency itself. There is, he promises, only one volume left.
‘I’m sorry to keep you waiting. It’ll just be a moment longer.’
Writing thousands of pages about one man may seem obsessive. But Caro doesn’t like that word; he ‘bristles’ at it, according to an Esquire profile.1 ‘That implies it’s something strange,’ he explains. ‘This is reporting. This is what you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to turn every page.’ I’ve been turning every page of The Years of Lyndon Johnson for 17 months now, and I wouldn’t bristle at the word obsessive being applied to me.
The book has had a grip on me that’s similar to the grip Johnson had on the U.S. Senate as Senate Majority Leader from 1955 to 1961. Forbidden from talking about it anymore with my girlfriend, family or friends, I talk about it with strangers: fellow dog owners at the dog park, a waiter refilling my water, an ANZ customer service representative processing a balance transfer. Once, while trying to wheedle my way out of a dinner arrangement, I couldn’t help but imagine myself as Johnson, greasing and squeezing hands like the legislative genius he was to secure the passage of a bill to enshrine my right to stay home and read Caro. Then it got worse.
I had been warned. ‘[Caro’s] passion, or fetish, for the documented detail invades one’s own mind,’ Sam Tanenhaus wrote in Prospect, ‘and with it the anxiety that one will surrender all ability to distinguish the important datum from the merely available one.’2 Seeing as I already connect everything in my life back to Johnson and the book, I figured this was as good a reason as any as to why I couldn’t stop fixating on the word count and was now hassling an Amazon customer service associate about it.
‘Thanks for waiting. Sorry to make you to wait so longer.’
The Amazon customer service associate’s answer: he didn’t know. But Amazon used to know, once supplying a word count for book titles through its Look Inside feature. When pressed about this, the Amazon customer service associate offered a dizzying example of circular reasoning: ‘There are some changes made by Amazon these days, so it may be the reason that the word counts are no more available.’
The reason why Amazon no longer provides word counts for books may not be an important datum, or even a merely available one, but the Amazon customer service associate, unprompted, recognising ‘the level of inconvenience you are facing because of this’, offered me $5 in promotional credit. I like to think that Johnson, his political career largely bankrolled by bribes from construction company Brown & Root, would have admired this manoeuvre.
One website, WordCounters.com, offered an algorithm that would guess on my behalf. Scraping page counts from GoodReads, it uses a book’s associated genres and date of publication to come up with a word count estimate. The rationale left me a little uncertain, though. I wasn’t too sure the genre of political biography would be a useful way to think of a book whose author speaks of Homer as an inspiration for his writing style and, pushing the bounds of the idiom ‘like watching grass grow’, literally has his readers reading about grass not growing in the first volume during a lengthy dissertation on the poor quality of the Texas Hill Country soil.
Plus, the date of publication wouldn’t quite cover the timespan involved for a book that, while being written, has seen the inauguration of seven new U.S. presidents, the rise of the internet from a Department of Defense experiment to a tool now used by more than 3.2 billion people around the world, and the shrinking of publishing from an industry that would take a punt on a project like this to an industry that probably never will again.
Bragging about its algorithm, WordCounters lists some success stories. ‘The actual word count for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is 78 792 and our utility calculates 80 960, which is quite respectable’.3 (‘To describe [Johnson] in Potter terms,’ writes Bruce Handy in Vanity Fair, ‘you’d have to combine Dumbledore’s wisdom and omnipotence with Voldemort’s cunning and power-lust, then add in Snape’s insecurities, plus a dash—well, more than a dash—of Hagrid’s uncouthness; and then you’d still have to drag Shakespeare into it.’4)
Quite respectable wouldn’t cut it for me and Caro, but it had me wondering whether a word count could provide something concrete, something quantifiable, that could explain a book’s pull. According to WordCounters’ loose estimates, there are 1 495 231 words so far in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, the basis for HBO’s Game of Thrones. The sheer number of words in books in the series and The Years of Lyndon Johnson may have something to do with their appeal: there’s room for an exhaustive roster of characters, scope for those characters and their fortunes to change over time, latitude for a proper peek at the mechanics of politics and power, space for both grand narrative arcs and detailed set pieces. (Johnson, for the record, is most like string-pulling matriarch Olenna Tyrell, according to Rolling Stone,5 or uncouth sell-sword Bronn, according to National Ave,6 though I find Jaime Lannister a useful comparison for the discomfiting mixture of admiration, pity, love and hate he elicits.)
Compared to Caro, Martin is churning the stuff out. The delays between A Song of Ice and Fire books, now approaching seven years since the last—still shorter, mind you, than the shortest wait between The Years of Lyndon Johnson volumes (eight years)—has enraged a sizeable contingent of fans, who take the time he spends doing something other than writing the series, whether it’s writing something else or even just taking a holiday, as grievances. As a mark of their obsessiveness, they bristle at what they see as Martin’s lack of obsessiveness.
To get a precise figure, I would have to rely on the ebook versions of The Years of Lyndon Johnson, which I downloaded for when I can’t lug around the hardcover versions, each of which roughly weigh (Amazon was no help again, so this is a guess) the same as a dangerously obese small dog.
First, I had to install an ebook management program called Calibre. From there, I had to download and install a plugin to access the ebook. To make that plugin play nice, though, I had to find and enter my Kindle’s serial number. And for the word counting itself, I needed yet another plugin, the instructions for which were written for the French version of Calibre and had been translated by a French speaker back into English.
It didn’t work. I bristled, not just because of what was clearly obsessiveness, but also out of a genuine concern about my consumption of words. In today’s media-saturated world, with billions of words begging for our attention, I figured it important that we know how much we’re consuming. Part of me became suspicious about why this was so hard to find out and why Amazon wouldn’t tell me. I felt like writing to the Amazon customer service associate again.
From the announcement of Trump’s presidential run on 15 June 2016 until the end of August, more than 750 million words were used about him across tweets, news articles, blogs, videos and television.7 Taking into account the average books people read per year, the average pages per book and the average male lifespan,8 I have just shy of 50 million words left to read before I die—a mere 4 days, 11 hours, 12 minutes and 2 seconds of Trump coverage.
Maybe ‘consumption’ isn’t the right word to use to convey the urgency I felt. I thought of those 50 million words as water in a bucket, there to water plants as I saw fit. I worried about how much of that water I was pouring on inferior Texas Hill Country soil.
For all my focus on the numbers, I failed to notice a few especially important ones. They were the zeroes in the Kindle’s serial number, which I had mistaken for Os. After entering the number correctly, Calibre finally gave me the word count for The Years of Lyndon Johnson:
1 903 877.
That’s around 1.76 times the Harry Potter series, about 400 000 words more than A Song of Ice and Fire so far, approximately 4 hours, 4 minutes and 55 seconds of Trump coverage and roughly 3.81 per cent of the books I can read before I die. It’s a prime number, too, for whatever it’s worth. Punch it into a phone and it’s the calling code for landlines in Tyler, Texas, the hometown of Johnson aide and speechwriter Harry McPherson.
As finite and definite as the number is, it doesn’t dull the mirage of infinity that The Years of Lyndon Johnson offers, and which perhaps is what keeps me in its grip. There’s a hint of endlessness in the quantity of things, depth and complexity of things, combinations of connections of things to other things. Maybe obsession’s force comes the tension between a yearning to truly and completely understand something and the knowledge that it is impossible, that it will never be enough. As Caro once said in an interview with The Paris Review, ‘You hope you’re seeing everything that really matters, but you always have this feeling, What’s in the rest?’9 Or, to paraphrase an Amazon customer service associate: there are some things you may never fully grasp, so it may be the reason why you seek to grasp it.
Toby Fehily is a Melbourne-based writer whose work has appeared in The Guardian, The Lifted Brow, Smith Journal, Junkee and on ABC Radio National. He was highly commended for the 2017 Scribe Nonfiction Prize.