Biographers of the Future

This seems like the appropriate place to post these thoughts. The irony does not escape me.

I have been reading biographies lately, including one of Patricia Highsmith, and the classic “To The Finland Station” by Edmond Wilson. In these works the authors had access to the copious letters of the subjects in addition to their more public writings. These days far fewer letters are written. I know this in part because my wife used to work for the post office, and letter deliveries are down – way down – enough so that the post office relies on advertising fliers and bulk mail for much of its income. This trend of course started back in the 1990s with the popularization of email, and now it has gotten to the point that the only time most people send “snail mail” letters is perhaps a holiday letter or special occasion card. Even then many people just email or text a greeting. I must confess that I rely totally on email and messaging these days, and have for nearly two decades.

So it seems to me the job of the biographer will be if not more difficult, at least different in the future. When most folks, even writers, communicate through email or networking sites, the job of the historian or biographer will entail gathering perhaps critical insights and personal information from the internet. Much of this is fleeting. How many times have we changed our email providers, only to loose all of our email exchanges – sometimes years worth. Whether this will make the biographer’s job more difficult or easier is hard to say. In many ways much of what used to be private correspondence between two people is now much more public. In the past one might have written to a close friend or trusted relative. Now similar personal information is given to everyone (even strangers) on facebook or other networking sites, but those revelations may be more censored or deliberately dissembling then the contents of a personal letter. The word “friend” itself has changed its meaning in the context of the internet.

This does not negate the need for the well written and insightful biography. In spite of the proliferation of personal information on the internet, there will still be the desire and need for distilled and cogent appraisals of the lives of certain individuals, and it will still take a sensitive and skilled writer to pull all of the scattered threads together to create a narrative from the parts and pieces. The narrative is what we crave. The idea that a life is in some sense a story, and story is life. We will always need talented and perceptive writers to create this narrative, but those writers will find the cacophony of voices on the internet to be a problematic, albeit necessary resource.

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