Book Review: ‘Self-Made,’ by Tara Isabella Burton

SELF-MADE: Creating Our Identities from da Vinci to the Kardashians, by Tara Isabella Burton

The Kardashians have sold so much to America — shapewear, cosmetics, beverage upon beverage — why not throw ideas onto the pile?

That highly contoured family pulls up like a caboose at the end of Tara Isabella Burton’s “Self-Made,” a fast-moving train of a book that visits a series of individuals in western history who have changed in ways major and minor the way people represent and think of themselves.

Burton calls Kim “the apex of the nihilistic, aristocratic tradition” that includes the Regency dandy Beau Brummell, an early practitioner of what’s come to be known, in its modern online incarnation, as the “get ready with me,” or GRWM, routine. “Admirers thronged” to Brummell’s house, she recounts, to see an hourslong grooming process that included “exfoliation with a coarse-hair brush, followed by a bath of milk,” and spitting in a special silver bowl. (And you thought Dior’s $40 lip oil was excessive.)

A novelist with a doctorate in theology from Oxford who has written widely on travel and religion, including for The New York Times, Burton is a confident conductor on this, an express voyage over several centuries, glossing an international lingo of self-determination: “sprezzatura” and “bon ton” and “Übermensch.”

Her argument is that in an increasingly secularized society — what’s recently been termed “dechurching” — human beings have assumed godlike power and responsibility, at least over their own bodies and identities. “We are creators of ourselves, of our lives, of the world around us,” she observes. “We take on the divine role of constructing and shaping reality.” Just look at us floating around in the heaven and hell of cyberspace: feeling omniscient with our powerful search engines, gathering “followers.”

“Self-Made” begins not with Leonardo da Vinci, as advertised in the book’s subtitle, but the somewhat more obscure German artist Albrecht Dürer, a pioneer in the field of self-portraiture who rendered himself in the image of Jesus Christ and splashed his initials, which felicitously echoed “Anno Domini,” wherever he could. The reader can immediately see a throughline to Kim Kardashian, author of “Selfish”; her ex-husband Kanye West, with his declaration “I Am a God” on the album “Yeezus”; and their variously monogrammed product lines, but there will be a number of other stops before getting there.

One is chez Oscar Wilde, an early influencer who, Burton reminds us, started a rage for wearing carnations dyed green, possibly to drum up publicity for his play “Lady Windermere’s Fan,” but perhaps for no reason at all. Here was someone who “held that artistic creation, rather than grubby moneymaking, was the key to human superiority,” she writes, “and that artistic creation of oneself was the highest calling of all.”

Another briefly noted trailblazer, on the other side of the Atlantic, is Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist born enslaved who spoke in the National Market Hall of Philadelphia about the “self-made man” and his special commitment to “Work! WORK!! WORK!!! WORK!!!!” (An incantation these days rarely uttered without arch inflection.)

In Burton’s telling, individual identity, ever trying to define itself against the crowd, has moved forward in sometimes awkward lock step with technology. Thomas Edison gave the press glimpses of his light bulb before it was ready for prime time (“He may have harnessed electricity, but he had also harnessed another invisible power: celebrity.”) Television and tape recordings transformed Warhol-era personal presentation.

And only a few decades later, here we are all nonchalantly carrying around smartphones in front of our faces. If TV’s arrival in living rooms was “thrilling” but “destabilizing,” as Burton notes, iPhones have thrown us completely off balance, like new limbs.

Reading “Self-Made” can feel a little like wandering through a favorite museum with a new docent speaking into your padded headset: lots of “hmm!” moments but few surprises. Women don’t really show up, except as robots, until the rise of the “It Girl” in Hollywood, a subject thoroughly explicated last year in a biography of her creator, Elinor Glyn. Another of Burton’s chosen figures, the maverick Whole Earth catalog editor Stewart Brand, he of the oft-memed mission statement “we are as gods and might as well get good at it,” has also just been the subject of a big biography.

But one can feel, and share, her delight poking into some of the past’s more cobwebbed corners. The futurist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti once put glue on a theater audience’s seats? Prime Minister William Pitt (The Younger) imposed a tax on hair powder in London? I could have read tens of pages more on the Extropians, one of whom suggested at a 1994 conference that it would eventually be possible “to upload their entire consciousness to a computer.”

Burton packs a lot of material into a small space to support an ambitious idea, and it would be interesting to see what she would do with more focus. “Self-Made” seems designed for a distracted generation: more of a tour than a tour de force.

SELF-MADE: Creating Our Identities from da Vinci to the Kardashians | By Tara Isabella Burton | 288 pp. | Public Affairs | $30