The Death of Biography

Tim Ferris shares stories of childhood, depression, and other formative moments in an interview. Between Wikipedia, his books, and other online content, students of history may have more than enough material to piece together his life. In a satisfying and primary-source-rich way.

If the question a biography asks is “What’s important to this famous figure?” then there’s no better place to go than the internet. Want to know about Keanu Reeves? Online social proof speaks strongly to his reputation and the events that shaped it, perhaps more strongly than he himself speaks.

As I write this, however, I’m reversing my stance. When do we get to hear from the parents and loved ones? When do we get the context outside the subject’s head, in more than a few accomplishment-summary sentences? When do we see the personal correspondence, the salacious, the intriguing, the private?

I really loved David McCullough’s biography of the Wright Brothers. It dove into the details, in much the same way those pioneers immersed themselves in the invention of aviation. The same goes for others, for instance The Snowball about Warren Buffet.

There’s something complete, wholesome, fulfilling about a biography. It’s an accomplishment in itself to get through one. The reader takes away greater appreciation for the subject, through sheer size alone, than any YouTube clip or Wikipedia page could ever lend.

The question becomes: who is worth reading and writing about in this day and age?

I suspect the answer is increasingly in the long tail. Anyone who has 1,000 true fans. There’s probably still a big place for good biographical writing, at least for now. But biography seems to be growing sideways, like all information; the medium is increasingly blended.

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