Whenever I've read a biography I've always been struck by how much information they have about people that died 50, 100, or even 1,000 years ago. Of course, most of the people that are biography-worthy were pretty great while they were living and therefore were more likely to have been written about by their peers. And, as these individuals invented or created great things like masterpiece works of art, life changing inventions, paradigm shattering philosophies, etc., you can spend a lot of time talking about what they did and how their work affected our world.
On this day 150 years ago, Todd Zarwell, the inventor of Cottage Cheese Whiz, enjoyed a 9-piece chicken McNugget meal.
Some of our knowledge comes from public records. For example, we know Copernicus was born to wealthy merchants and had the privilege of a good education. We know that Caravaggio walked around with a sword, looking for brawls, and killed at least on man. However, it still always amazes me how much they know about the inner workings of these great people. It really seems like we really know what made them tick.
I realized a couple decades ago that, for many of these historic figures, much of what we know comes from their own words. Sure, a few of them kept journals or wrote memoirs. Still, the biggest source of information is often from their letters. These people wrote a lot! And, like anything that any skill that is repeated ad infinitum, they were really good at it.
For example, Vincent Van Gogh was not a celebrated artist during his life. On the contrary, he suffered from mental illness and had a hard time giving his paintings away. His fame came after his death, and I suspect we would know very little about him if he hadn't exchanged over 600 letters with his brother Theo. There are a few periods where little is known about Vincent's life: when he and Theo lived together and they had little reason to write.
Nearly every biography I've read has had a similar theme: Letters from the person, letters to the person, letters referencing the person. The authors of the biographies try their best to fill in the gaps with their understanding of the culture and the times that their subject lived in, but these letters serve as the foundation for these life stories.
This has really made me think about our modern lives. I haven't written a letter since 1994, and even when I did they were short and I divulged very little personal information. What if I do something great (probably by accident), and they want to write about me a hundred years from now. What will they know about me? Well, we have more public records than ever before, so they'll know where I went to school, how I performed in school, where I worked, if I was incarcerated (so far so good on that one), etc.
But what will they know about me personally? Well, we don't write letters like we once did because of the "improvements" in communications: telegraphs, phones, email, and now FaceBook and Twitter. We have faster was of communicating nowadays, and, since we don't have to wait a month before our letter arrives at it's destination, we're a lot less likely to pour our deepest thoughts into our writings. Instead, we write short emails and one-liner status updates.
On one hand, my life is going to be very well documented as I often record what I'm doing, sometimes with pictures, video, and geolocation. On the other hand, my deepest thoughts usually just bounce around inside my head and are only shared with the people closest to me.
What does this mean? Unless I want my recorded history to be a list of where I've eaten lunch I'd better start writing more regular blog posts.