The hurdle of intrusive biography is the last that any writer has to jump, and any decent-minded reader nowadays has to hope that the writers he admires will find a way to cheat their biographers.
— Joseph Epstein, “C.P. Cavafy, a Poet in History,” Life Sentences
I was saying to Mr. Dalrymple recently that one of the many things I appreciate about Eric Hoffer was the mystery shrouding some of the most basic facts of his life. I know a little bit more about the musician Mark Sandman, but likewise, I found it touching that he tried so hard to keep an air of mystique around himself. As I get older, I find I really don’t want to know any more than necessary about people, partially as a general practice of modesty and restraint, but partially because very few of us can hope to appear attractive when standing naked under the floodlights. I don’t want to be a compulsive flasher of the soul, and I don’t want to help encourage anyone else to shed those inhibitions either. We may be increasingly forced by technology to live in a fishbowl environment, but we can practice the art of knowing when to look away.
There’s a book of which I’ve sold many used copies, a biography of Pattie Boyd, the woman who inspired famous songs by George Harrison and Eric Clapton. When I flip through it to check the condition, I’m struck by how tawdry and tedious most of the passages are, centering as they do on the drug-addled ennui of immature celebrities. Are we simply getting the muses and art we deserve? Perhaps the reason we don’t seem to have heroes any more is because we have mass media. We know too much, we talk too much, and we’re making it impossible to productively forget things. How would Shakespeare fare if we were to suddenly discover a trove of detailed information about his everyday life and relationships? Lisa Gherardini might well have come off as a bimbo had anyone asked her to set down her book-length thoughts, but all she had to do was hold one pose to become immortal.