On Bios, Toward a Bio of James P. Ascher

James P. Ascher

Posted on 01 Oct 2015

I don’t want to disappoint the curious reader coming to this page seeking enlightenment, but I don’t know the rules for writing in the genre of the bio. In the spirit of the readers of the Earl of Shaftesbury, who writes about the nature of prefaces as a preface to his Characteristics, forgive me for thinking through the genre as an answer.

What is a “bio” and what role does it have?

It seems to be a shortening of biography, a literary form drawing on the hagiography, but made sleek for a bright internet future. The OED tells us that the word appears as early as 1925, but in all three quotes it is a biography written by one person about another. Google Ngrams seems to agree that the word takes-off between 1900 and 1920. In the context of journalism, it seems to suggest something short, which an abbreviation of a perfectly sensible English word into three letters also points at. So, it seems that bios are short.

Whence does the self-written bio come from?

There’s no obvious souce that I know of, but looking through the Corpus of American English, which covers 450 million words from 1990-2012, I note that “[app*] bio”—that is a possessive and the word “bio”—occurs eighty times: twenty-three times as “your bio,” forty-three times as “his” or “her” bio, nine times as “my” bio, thrice as “their” bio, and twice as our bio. The bios seem to be read before an interview, posted to LinkedIn, or fabricated by other people before being commented on. It seems that the bio stands-in for some other kind of connection an invitation to ignorance. Being asked to write a bio seems to invite a sort of self-erasure, a distancing of the experience of a person. I cannot help but think of the scene from Annie Hall:


So, can we say that writing a bio is an invitation to provide a journalistic snapshot? Does a hyper-linked periphrasis then resist summaries or is it simply an annoying abuse of systems? As the gracious reader can make this bio as short as they’d like, I’ll assume that I cannot possibly be abusing your attention, nor can I force you to participate in my digressions.

##TLDR?## Doctoral candidate in the English Department studies 18th century English literature and bibliography, including media studies; seeks new ideas, long walks with peripatetic purpose, and friends who are angels in the plenary and freaks in the interdisciplinary seminar. Also interested in the history of “big” data, resisting the Enlightenment, and your research.