Sunday, September 18, 2005

The Tyranny of Biography

Author Michelle Richmond has a new blog. It’s called San Serif and I liked her first entry so much I am taking it for my own.

Richmond links to an essay by Leslie Berlin about writing a biography of Robert Noyce, the man credited with starting the computer revolution. Berlin’s book The Man Behind The Microchip was released a few months ago and was well reviewed in the New York Times Book Review.

Writing a biography means spending years with someone – reading their letters, talking to their family members, retracing their steps. It’s a strange relationship, as the person is usually dead but occupies a writer's thoughts for years. Children and spouses eventually find themselves "relating" to the subject, as Berlin details for an essay for Powell’s on-line bookstore.

“Now that I look back on it, it is astonishing how much of a presence in my family's lives Bob Noyce became when I was writing his biography. Twice Noyce appeared in my dreams, uttering my name in a weird spooky voice that I took as a warning to do a very good job on the book. When the startup for which my husband worked was bought by an East Coast company, I could not stop talking about what had happened after Fairchild Semiconductor, Noyce's first startup, was bought by an East Coast company. And at the dinner table I would tell my children about how twelve-year-old Noyce tried to fly by jumping off the roof of his garage in a glider he had built with his brother, or how, as an adult, he had loaned his jet and his own services as a pilot to Audubon researchers trying to reinvigorate a colony of puffins off the coast of Maine.

By the time I finished the book, in fact, my children considered Noyce something akin to a very cool work colleague of mine. They had taken to calling him "Mommy's Bob." Every time we drove past the Intel headquarters building, my son would announce, "That's Bob's and Gordon's company," confident he deserved to be on a first-name basis with the founders. I once overheard my daughter proudly telling a friend, "People can only play video games because of Mommy's Bob." My children apparently took personal pride in Noyce's work because they felt as if they knew him. He was as much a real person as all the other people in their parents' lives whom they had heard about but never met. "

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