I had this dream the other day. A really strange dream. I was reading my biography. It was really thick, a doorstop of a book, the kind with small type in the front and even smaller type in the endnotes, and as you might expect from such a massive book it was crammed full of facts. Facts about me.
As I paged through the book, my eyes swimming in the sea of facts, I remember thinking that this biographer really did his homework. It was all there, every detail of my life, presented in chronological order. He must have interviewed everyone I’ve known. He must’ve walked through every house, dorm and apartment I’ve ever lived in. He must’ve reviewed all my school work. My employers must’ve provided him access to all the paper I’ve churned out over the years. He must've analyzed all my tax returns, reviewed all my Quicken reports, inventoried all my possessions. It looked like he'd read every book I’d ever read. And he’d surely looked at all my photos, for how else could he have chronicled every minute change in my appearance so completely?
It was overwhelming, seeing it all there, page after page of my life reduced to words.
I learned a lot. Not only stuff I never knew, such as what others really thought of me, but a lot of stuff I once knew but had long since forgotten, such as who I sat next to on the first day of kindergarten. And it was disorienting, to say the least, to learn so much about myself from a book. To think that this guy, my biographer, knew me better than I knew myself. Very unsettling.
But the more I read, the more frustrated I felt. Something was wrong, but I wasn’t sure what it was. He got all the facts right. No argument there. My Boswell was nothing if not thorough. But as fact after fact piled up I found it harder and harder to find the me buried beneath. I mean, it’s interesting to note the shoes I wore in sixth grade, or my brand of toothpaste, or the scores I achieved on my SAT, or the friends I was closest to in college, or the books I enjoyed most when I was 32, but after a while it got really distracting, then it got annoying, this fire hose of facts drowning me on every page. I found myself reacting against this, at first trying to forget the facts but after a while simply repeating a mantra to myself, over and over: I am not those shoes, I am not that toothpaste, I am not those scores, I am not those friends, I am not those books.
And it wasn’t just the facts. Like any modern biographer, he delved beneath, ascribing motives, describing moods, reconstructing reasons to explain why I did what what I did, and didn’t do what I didn’t. He was very astute, no doubt about it, for his theories started with the facts, they were internally consistent, they drew upon the latest psychological research, they made sense. They were quite convincing. Masterful, even. I was definitely nodding my head, reading them, even thinking sometimes “so that’s why I did that.”
Or was it? As I read deeper into the book, I found myself questioning him more and more. I thought of alternate explanations or, sometimes, I thought there was no explanation. I recalled contradictions, delusions and distortions in my mind that never found their way onto these pages. This was all working out a little too neatly, if you know what I mean, all these facts and theories dovetailing beautifully into a unified whole that, in the end, didn’t add up. It made too much sense. The more I pressed, the more it unraveled, especially as the book reached more recent years, years when I had a better recollection of what I was, and wasn’t, thinking.
For all its factualizing and theorizing, it wasn’t me.
This massive compendium of accurate facts joined together with insightful explanations amounted to a big fat nothing. All that leg work, all those words, so many endnotes, but to what end? The best in biography technology, but it never even dipped a toe into my head. Never even hinted at the swirling uncertainties, the illogical progressions, the faulty connections, the delusional fears, the contextless recollections, the aimless wanderings that fill my mind every second of every day.
I mean, if I could record an accurate account of my mental processes during just one hour of my life -- any hour -- it would tell you more about me than a million well-researched, well-reasoned and well-cited words ever would. Just one hour is all it would take. It would be a true self-portrait, painted in words, an internal portrayal of a mind over a moment in time, the most accurate possible picture of who I was, who I am and who I will be. The rest is noise.
At this point I slammed the book shut, vowing to never read it again. I’d had enough of its energetic and encyclopedic futility. And, being the subject of all this work, I felt that it was somehow my duty to inform my biographer that he’d missed the mark, maybe thank him for all his efforts and acknowledge his good intentions but leave it clear in no uncertain terms that the person portrayed in his biography, in the end, bore only the most superficial resemblance to me.
So I looked for the biographer’s name on the front cover and saw that his name was mine.
Like I said, a really strange dream.