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Biographies and the Distortion of History

Walter Isaacson, in an interview with the Harvard Gazette, gives the most honest answer I’ve ever seen an author give about how writers distort history in one way or another while writing biographies:

GAZETTE: You’re known for your “Great Man”-style biographies, and yet this is a story about famous, seminal figures and the lesser-knowns who contributed to the Digital Revolution in some way. Can you tell me about that approach?

ISAACSON: The first book I did after college (with a friend) was about six not very famous individuals who worked as a team creating American foreign policy. It was called “The Wise Men.” Ever since then, I’ve done biographies. Those of us who write biographies know that to some extent we distort history. We make it seem like somebody in a garage or in a garret has a “light-bulb moment” and the world changes, when in fact creativity is a collaborative endeavor and a team sport. I wanted to get back to doing a book like “The Wise Men” to show how cultural forces and collaborative teams helped create the Internet and the computer. There’s no one person you can put up there with Thomas Edison and say, “He or she invented the Internet or the computer.” My biography of Henry Kissinger begins with a quote of his in which he said, while flying on one of his shuttle missions to the Middle East in the 1970s, “As a professor, I tended to think of history as run by impersonal forces. But when you see it in practice, you see the difference personalities make.” I wanted to look at the interplay between the cultural forces, including wartime government funding as well as the explosion of digital concepts, and to what extent that related to the creativity of individual players.

The great irony being that the books we love the most are probably the ones that bend the truth the most for the sake of the story.

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