Biographies in the Age of Email

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For centuries, biographers have relied on letters to bring historical figures to life, from Gandhi to Catherine the Great. But over the past two decades, most people have switched from writing paper letters to email.

Navigating the digital age is proving to be a challenge to biographers who must contend with computer languages that become obsolete and estates that don’t see electronic communications as valuable artifacts.

"It's really only been the last say ten years that we've started to address it seriously knowing that most of what's going to be created from here on in is going to be created electronically," said William Stingone, curator of manuscripts at the New York Public Library.

Below, you can read an interview WNYC's Ilya Marritz conducted with D.T. Max, author of Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story, a biography of the novelist David Foster Wallace, who took his own life in 2008.

Q: Emails are an important source for your book, but they only show up towards the end of the footnotes, around 2004 and 2005. Why so late?

The funny thing about David Foster Wallace is that for all that he’s identified with a generation that lives online, he didn’t like computers, and he didn't want to go online. He was typing on an electric typewriter for as long as he possibly could. And he was writing handwritten letters. I think that he even for a period of time is more or less pretending he didn’t know how to send an email and have his assistant at the university where he was teaching send the emails. He would receive emails and have them printed out, so he could read them on paper.

Q: Can you give an example of how DFW's emails shed light on his state of mind?

Towards end of David’s life he decides to go off of an antidepressant he’s been on for decades. And he’s doing it partially because he feels he can’t write well while has the antidepressant in his system and partially because it’s a difficult antidepressant to tolerate. And he uses email to sort of keep his friend Jonathan Franzen up to date on what’s going on. And the emails are really quite extraordinary. Here's one...

"I feel a bit 'peculiar,' which is the only way to describe it..All this is to be expected (22 years and all), and I am not unduly alarmed. Phase 4 of withdrawal/titration commences today. It's all OK. I appreciate the monitoring."

And then a little bit later he follows up, writing about "disabling nausea/fatigue…I've been blowing stuff off and then having it slip my mind. This is the harshest phase of the 'washout process' so far; it's a bit like I imagine a course of chemo would be."

Q: So how did you get these emails?

I had emails from a lot of different sources. And different emails came to me different ways. Some people would literally forward the email – what's a more natural gesture? Sometimes the emails would be grouped in some sort of text document and sent on to me. Occasionally, people would print them out and then send them.

One of the hardest things is to read email when it's all printed out, because of the backwardness of the answer. Email's like a game of Jeopardy! where the answer comes before the question.

One of the fun things if you ever get hold of someone's email directory - the junk email is incredibly resonant of its time. And if you go back and look at somebody’s emails from mid 1990s it really doesn't look like an inbox today.

Q: So were you conscious of being one of first biographers to extensively use emails as a source?

I was very conscious of it. One of strange things about David Foster Wallace is because of the tragedy of his early death everything is accelerated.

There was a generation of biographers who preceded me who had the very difficult task of dealing with fact that people mostly used the phone. And they were writing about the 70s. So I think as biographers we're lucky that people began writing to one another again, after a period when they sort of didn't write to one another at all.

There was also the technical worry that emails will become obsolete, that we can't open them. And in fact I did lose a lot of emails I would have liked from people who had the emails on another computer, and they had to find someone who could figure out how to use a floppy to transfer the data early, and nobody used WordPerfect anymore, it was in an early version of DOS…

So that kind of explanation – 'It's on an old computer I don't know if I can find it' - kind of became a successor to the other heartbreaking things biographers have heard over the decades, like, 'We had a flood,' or 'I think it's somewhere in the garage.' So it's a new form of defeat for biographers.

This interview has been edited and condensed.