The Public Humanist
The Story and the Self
I loved books as a kid. But one of the strange things about loving books as I did is that I somehow managed to not read most of the grade school kid classics. I'm thinking of stuff like Wrinkle in Time, that Lion, Witch, Wardrobe thingy, Lord of the Rings, and all of those kinds of books that for kids today seem to just go by the name "Harry Potter." Those books were on my shelves at home. They just didn't get read, because, for most of grade school, I was obsessed with reading biographies.
Mostly baseball player biographies. I remember reading three biographies of Hank Aaron in row and, in fact, I still have an enormous amount of random knowledge about the Home Run King. Then some football player bios, even a hockey player or two (though I still am clueless about the game).
I liked biographies because they did a couple of things. First and foremost for my kid-mind, biographies told me about a game I loved: baseball. I got to imagine myself all over the pages as a witness, a friend to the player, or even a participant. Yes, I played all of those funny, cliché games in the backyard, talking to myself as an announcer announcing the stressful situation, my clutch hit/pitch/shot/catch, and all of that was peppered with players from the fifties and sixties (not the mid- to late-seventies in which I was living). Second, and as a point to think about biographies more maturely (i.e., more abstractly), I loved biographies because I got to know a person through stories about them.
Stories about them. Stories are important. Sure, they amuse us and even spur us to deep contemplation, but stories are also how we understand the nature of the Self. One of the central insights I draw from the existential tradition is that the Self is best understood, not as a core "nature" or "essence," but as a narrative. It's not on the authority of a fancy name "existential" that we should be convinced. Rather, the claim that the Self is a compilation of stories is part of our everyday life. When you meet someone, "getting to know" the person and helping them get to know you consists mostly of exchanging stories. What "kind" of person are you? That "kind" is revealed through stories about tests of character, formative events, crises and their aftermath, and so forth. In fact, I might go so far as to say that knowing one's own Self or the Self of a friend is not much more than being able to recite important stories. Through those stories, something about a person is glimpsed.
Biographies give us that sense of a person through stories, no? Somehow, we grasp the shape and contour of a person, not through direct description of the essence of "Hank Aaron" or a laundry list of virtues and vices, but rather through the gestures and pointings toward something called "this person here" that you get in a good story. Bits and pieces are told. Not told so that we have discrete bits of knowledge. No, instead we get those bits and pieces so that something more general - "the person" - comes into view, intuitively, in the heart and mind. Isn't that what it means to "know" someone?
At the same time, that is the sly and subtle lie of biography, whether told by another person or told by the person himself. Stories give us the shape and contour of a Self. And that's what is so engaging and revealing. But at the same time, such attempts cover over the most difficult part of storytelling: the fundamental mystery we all are to others and even to ourselves. What does a story reveal? If a story reveals something clear and distinct about a person, then we forget what perhaps prompted the story in the first place - namely, the struggle to make sense of something that is firstly fragmented, obscure.
So maybe all biography - auto- or otherwise - is a bit of a lie, opting for the big picture over the fragments and mystery that do not readily assemble into something communicable. Or engaging and accessible. (People usually write books in order to sell them, after all.) But we don't know ourselves well enough to grasp our most elemental desires, interests, curiosities, and all of the muddier moods and character traits. We can't. It is part of being human, the beauty and terror of it all, to find mystery where we might expect and want clarity: introspection and self-contemplation. The same goes for the other person. Who am I to me? And so who could you possibly be to me, me to you? Biography is caught between the compulsion to tell stories and give insight into life AND the crazy abyss that lies between what we can know about ourselves and others. That "something else" that drives life forward. Perhaps, then, the only real biography is one told in random, only occasionally connected fragments. That might not sell very well. Yet, it would be oh so honest.
I say all of this because of the story I told you to start this post. I never know the references to the standard kid-lit. When I don't, folks always ask me what I read or maybe if I didn't read at all. I say I read biographies. And from that we start, in playful banter or serious conversation, to assemble a story about this story, a way of making sense of something that at the time made both no and complete sense. Want to read, John? Sure, how about yet another story about a superstar second baseman...
For what it's worth, my holiday break reading will be Roger Kahn's The Boys of Summer. I loved reading about Jackie Robinson. The guy stole home in the World Series, for god's sake! And why do I find that so exciting and interesting...and what does it say about me that I love the story, and what does that story tell about Robinson, America, race, The Dream, and all that? Everything and nothing.