The 7-Word Autobiographies of Famous Writers, Artists, Musicians, and Philosophers
John Irving, Joan Didion, David Byrne, Rem Koolhaas, Madeleine Albright, Malcolm Gladwell, Daniel Dennett, Andrew Sullivan, Ed Ruscha, Brian Eno, and more.
By Maria Popova
Since 2005, the LIVE from the NYPL program masterminded and anchored by intellectual impresario Paul Holdengräber — one of the most interesting people to ever encounter, should you be so fortunate — has transformed the New York Public Library into a wonderland of stimulating conversations on literature and life with some of today’s most celebrated writers, scientists, artists, philosophers, musicians, and other luminaries. Among Holdengräber’s signature touches are the 7-word autobiographies he asks each of his prominent guests to provide, to be read as he introduces them. Here is a selection of the best such personal micro-biographies — the literal, the abstract, the sarcastic, the poetic — from the entire run of the series so far:
Tom Wolfe drops some delightful vintage lingo:
Ace daddy, gym rat, Balzolan reporter, Ph.D.
The magnificent Cheryl Strayed, whose Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar was among the best psychology and philosophy books of 2012 and is one of the best existential favors one can do oneself, goes for truth-by-way-of-its-opposite, offering “seven words that won’t define [her]”:
Daniel Dennett, man of infinite wisdom and endlessly quotable insight:
Philosopher, professor, author, sailor, New Atheist
Jim Holt, whose Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story remains indispensable and who has previously shared some mind-bending insight on the nature of “nothing”:
Failed mathematician who happily declined into journalism.
David Byrne, who knows a thing or two about how music and creativity work, appears blissfully oblivious to the 7-word-limit brief:
unfinished, unprocessed, uncertain, unknown, unadorned, underarms, underpants, unfrozen, unsettled, unfussy
Daniel Kahneman, whose Thinking, Fast and Slow is one of the most insightful psychology books in recent history, compensates for Byrne’s excess with his own sub-quota answer:
Endlessly amused by people’s minds
Brian Eno, sage of timeless insight on art:
I like making and thinking about culture.
Andrew Solomon, whose meditation on horizontal vs. vertical identity and the power of love is a soul-stirring must-read, goes for something his mother used to say to him:
Good listeners: more interesting than good talkers.
Hans Ulrich Obrist, legendary curator and art instigator:
Protest against forgetting
Malcolm Gladwell, overlord of the contrarian:
Father said: “Anything but journalism.” I rebelled.
William Gibson, champion of “personal microculture” and a solid daily creative routine, offers an answer somewhere between Yoda and Gertrude Stein:
Postwar. Cold War. Stop the War. Later.
Elizabeth Gilbert playfully riffs off the title of her modern classic:
Eats/Loves too much…should Pray more.
Ed Ruscha, who does indeed have a soft spot for sign painting:
Rufus Wainwright, music god, rebels against humility with his characteristic charming irreverence:
According to Elton John world’s greatest singer-songwriter
Sherry Turkle stays true to her technodystopia:
Technology doesn’t just change what we do; it changes who we are.
Errol Morris, documentarian extraordinaire and bastion of photographic truth:
autodidact, necrophile, voyeur, filmmaker, opinionated writer, father
Don DeLillo, who also abides by a rigorous writing routine, goes for a beautiful format:
why he is here.
Madeleine Albright echoes Helen Keller:
Optimist who worries a lot; Grateful American
John Irving, crusader against censorship, employs a strategic semicolon:
Imagined missing father; wrestled, wrote, fathered children.
Irving was apparently so delighted by the exercise that he took the liberty of writing a few more seven-word bios for other notables:
FOR DICKENS (THE WRITER):
Had many kids; wrote about unhappy childhoods.
FOR THE OTHER DICKENS, MY DOG:
Best dog ever — she had a family.
AND THOMAS HARDY:
Fate, the universe driver; stopped writing for idiots.
NATURALLY, I COULDN’T RESIST MELVILLE:
More than a postal worker; knew whales, too.
Edmund de Waal has some fun with it:
Actually, I still make pots you know.
Rem Koolhaas stays true to form:
Mystic rational sober baroque patient immediate
Andrew Sullivan, who is one of the living reasons to love the internet and whose decades-long advocacy has been critical in the historic attainment of marriage equality, follows Strayed’s suit with anti-descriptive sarcasm:
French, straight, single, Anglican, diabetic, illiterate, slut.
Then comes Dan Savage, whose own tireless advocacy can’t be overstated:
asshole, blond, slut, shy, sunny, father, husband.
Anish Kapoor offers what’s arguably the most beautiful, in sheer poetics of language, answer:
As if to celebrate I discovered a mountain
But my favorite comes from notebook-lover Joan Didion, who has a rare gift for wry self-awareness and unwavering self-respect:
Seven words do not yet define me.
And, of course, this omnibus wouldn’t be complete without Holdengräber’s own 7-word autobiography, as pointedly brilliant as the man:
Mother always said: Two ears, one mouth.
See the full conversations on the LIVE from the NYPL Vimeo channel, treat yourself to one of the upcoming live events, and join me in supporting NYPL programming, which, like Brain Pickings, is made possible by patron donations.
Published July 11, 2013