A caterpillar among those mulberry leaves: The future of biography
Book club on Sunday
The most important factor about the future of biography is that print is no longer the only primary source. We have voice, image, and video now. There is a huge division between the figures of the nineteenth century we can only know through print and those of the twentieth century we can see and hear. This is why there ought to be a museum of biography that would immerse you in all of these ways of experiencing a person.
This week, the Steve Jobs Archive released an online book called Make Something Wonderful: Steve Jobs in his own words. In some ways, it is very old fashioned. It strings together a collection of emails, memos, interviews, speeches and other primary sources with some overarching commentary, section divisions, and a timeline at the back. This is how the Victorians did things. As I wrote recently, that is good and there should be more of it.
But because it is online, it has many many pictures properly integrated with the flow of the story. Hetty Saunders’ splendid biography of J.A. Baker has a photo essay at the back which tells the story of Baker’s life again in visual terms. Make Something Wonderful integrates the images throughout, without the restrictions of paper types and (literal) binding constraints. It works like the long essays on the New York Times, only with much more detail.
They miss the video and audio recordings. But this gets close to being a new way of making a biography that starts to integrate all mediums. I hope that soon we will get biographies that show us the raw footage of life in one place, rather than film in documentary, print in books, and so on. Imagine biographies that included live performances, interviews, product launches—all the things you currently have to find on YouTube. The usual things like copyright, publishing costs, academic inertia will get in the way, but in theory we should be able to produce splendid apps that immerse you in the life and the character through multi-media curation.
With AI, necromancy might not be so far away. That brings its own risks of reliability and a new widows’ problem will emerge: controlling access to material will get more intense as people worry about what it will do to reputations to make someone ‘live again’ like this. If you think scandalous, salacious letters are bad, wait until biography includes overheard recordings or makes errors about the exact wording...
Still, as John Heath Stubbs wrote about the party Shakespeare had with Michael Drayton and Ben Johnson before he died,
And who wouldn’t like to have been
A caterpillar among those mulberry leaves,
To catch some of the talk that drifted upwards,
And pass it on when one had turned a moth.
If anyone can do this, it is the Steve Jobs Archive, and I am optimistic for what they produce next.
The first Common Reader Book Club is on Sunday 16th April 19.00 UK time. That’s 14.00 Eastern and 11.00 am Pacific Time. We are discussing Gerard Manley Hopkins’ The Windhover, Elizabeth Bishop’s The Fish, and Seamus Heaney’s Oysters. We’ll be looking at Hopkins’ technique—how does he achieve his effects, and what does his poem mean—and then looking briefly at the way those techniques influence Bishop and Heaney. We’ll talk for about 90 minutes. If you want to join but can’t make the time, let me know.
Subscribers will get the zoom link in a post on Sunday. I will then post some detailed analysis of the poems in a subscribers’ only post and a video of the session. Subscribe today if you want to join us or read my analysis afterwards.