The Future History of Biographies

Though we often strive to be provocative at Blawgconomics, we would like to think that we typically fall short of being what most would describe as controversial. However, the past month or so has proven to be a slight exception. We have posted stories on religion and secession. Two of the top trending topics on the site have to do with the legality of Ponzi schemes and reverse racism. Even our suggestion that job creation costs of $2 million per head were excessive was met with a very impassioned wall of reader push back. Things haven't been this contentious on the site since a senatorial candidate from Connecticut suggested that we didn't know what deficit spending was...

Luckily, one of the ideas for a post I have been keeping in my back pocket for a rainy day is a bit more innocuous. It might not surprise anyone to read that I am a fan of historical biographies. Volumes on the founding fathers in particular always seem to leave a hole in my pocket and an ache in my back after purchasing them and carrying them around for the remainder of a shopping excursion (Brattle Books in Boston, Bartleby's in DC and The Book Barn in Connecticut are all favorites - both for their alliterative qualities and their interesting collections). Yet, I can't help but think that the standard in biograpies - books by authors separated by dozens or even hundreds of years from their subjects - is destined to become a thing of the past.

Assuming we will still use books in the future*, the style of tome noted above will nonetheless become ever obsolete in a world of Wikipedia, gossip websites, 24 hour news channels and the instant analysis these innovations allow. Additionally, such scholarly efforts will become less viable with a notable lack of that favorite fodder of the biographer, personal letters, as more communication occurs in a fleeting manner through an email, a text or a quick phone call.

In the former cases, almost no stone is left unturned when it comes to anyone of interest these days, even c-list celebrities of the moment. There is almost nothing left to the imagination to be uncovered by the biographer any more. In the latter, a lack of long-term and tangible communication between subjects and their confidants will ensure that there will be less for would-be biographers to sift through that isn't a matter of public record already.

Of course there will likely always be books including compilations of accomplishments with summaries and time lines for the biggest names of the day such as presidents and prime ministers. However, it is unlikely that a number of 'new and insightful' books on President Obama will be on the bestseller list in 2250 the same way that the Lincoln Renaissance has inundated the shelves of your local Barnes & Noble with new offerings since the early 2000's. There just won't be that much material available to uncover for a 'new' book to be a worthwhile venture.

So what will fill the gap? Memoirs and autobiographies. This trend has already started with the two biggest political personalities of the turn of the century, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. Considering the money and marketing which goes into such efforts, they will probably continue to get shelf space. And considering the public record material available on similar personalities these days, and the increased use of technology by them, it is very likely that new insights will have to come straight from the horse's mouths.

In sum, the guess here is that technology will make biographies, if not books themselves, obsolete. However, publicly available information and an increasing number of autobiographies driven by large fees will no doubt take their place. Not a bad effort in getting away from the controversial topics if I do say so myself. Unless, of course, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Ron Chernow are regular readers. However something tells me I am safe for the time being...

* This is worth a sidebar. This assumption is a pretty safe bet in my mind despite the Nook/Kindle revolution. Books are a pleasure in and of themselves, so there will always be some market for the real thing even if the laws of supply and demand dictate that some of today's aisle-cap paperbacks will transition to electronic media. This differs from the sea change brought on by devices such as the iPod as hardly anyone I know took pleasure from CD's themselves. In economics terms, the utility of CD's came from the music itself, meaning that they could be displaced by a more convenient medium. However, users find utility both in the content of books and the pages that content appears on, meaning that there is a place for both electronic formats and the good old book itself.


  1. Anonymous31/8/11 20:49

    It may be heretical, but I find the sidebar more interesting than the rest of the post! I don't think books are insulated as much as you say. Your CD/book comparison is fair, but another form of music is one that people took great pleasure in creating ... records. I hear echoes of the "the pleasure of a printed book" when audiophiles talk about the inimitable aural pleasures to be gleaned from vinyl. And yet record stores are largely a relic. That's where books are going.

  2. Josh Sturtevant2/9/11 10:54

    Not at all...we are just happy that any part of the post was interesting!

    In any case, you might have a point. It looks like a post on book industry economics is on tap for the near future...