In a favorable review of Ruth Scurr’s John Aubrey: My Own Life in the Times Literary Supplement of 27 February 2015, with broad-ranging discussion of the theory of biography, Stuart Kelly comments on the tendency for biographies to bloat, hinting at their wanting to follow the path laid out by Borges for the 1:1 map — a map of the Empire which occupies exactly the same expanse as the Empire. He adds “It would be possible, in our digital age, to create the ultimate form of this kind of biography. Imagine a webpage devoted to, let us say, Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Each page would correspond to a day of his life; any contributor could place there known facts about what he did that day, what he wrote that day, either professionally or personally, what others said or wrote about him on that day, and historic events that happened simultaneously. Each contribution could be graded from absolute certainty through degrees of likelihood to best-guess speculation. It ought, really, to extend before birth – date of conception, any traumatic incidents which befell his mother during pregnancy, back to, say, all eight great-grandparents; and should extend as far as the obituaries, his place in subsequent critical discourse, the fates of his offspring, and any references whatsoever to ‘it was a dark and stormy night’, ‘the great unwashed’, or ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’, up to the present day. Even if, by some inexplicable listlessness, no one wanted to help wiki-Lytton’s grand undertaking, Franco Moretti could surely unleash some data-mining crawler-bots to scoop up the data undigested and create a workable first pass at the first e-biography. I jest, but only just.”

I almost can’t believe that this isn’t happening already. It sounds way better than Second Life, which just enables you to create a virtual life which you can live while ignoring your actual one. The idea of a biography which would have to take longer to read that it did to live (because obviously it takes longer to read “he leaped out of the window, making sure his tie was straight and his jacket closely buttoned, and fell screaming to the pavement below” than it does to do it) is surely a noble way to subsume your own life to that of your hero. Isn’t this 1:1 biography sort what Karl Ove Knausgård has been accused of doing with his massive Min Kamp? And isn’t it quicker to spend the day striding around Dublin than to read the account of Leopold Bloom doing it in Ulysses?

Maybe we can get this massive on-line biography (MOB) going by incorporating the use of this revolutionary software, Memoirism, introduced to us by McSweeney’s. This software “allows you to create memories that appear up to 99% accurate” while you can comfortably get on with your regular non-autobiographical life. We could just let it rip on a wiki-biography. Or should we expect wiki-biographies to be truthful?

This stuff keeps on coming (I guess, although I am writing this at 8.15 pm on 31 March it’s 1 April somewhere in the world. How disorienting the web becomes.) Here comes a tweet telling us of the publication of the first book, 7R345UR3 15L4ND, written entirely by an algorithm created by Trajectory. But it is datelined Boston so it must be true, mustn’t it?

What we need now is an app which will read all this stuff for us. I don’t mean those apps that will read books to us. We won’t have time to listen! We just need them to read, so we can feel better about getting on with our gaming.


Dedicated to Andy Brown, friend and colleague, alas no longer available to provide content for Mr Kelly’s proposed Bulwer-Lytton site.